Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Alcohol, heart attack and unwarranted correlations

Let's assume that we want to design a medical research on cancer: we set up an experimental and a control group, made up of 50 individuals each, and we check their health for a certain period of time, let's say, 25 years. We order the members of the experimental group to say “Merry Christmas!” as soon as they get up from their bed every day in the morning; members of the control group should say nothing. After 25 years we compare the results. Let's imagine that 2% (1 out of 50) of people belonging to the first group died of cancer, whereas the amount of people belonging to the control group who died for the same reason is 10% (5 out of 50).
Conclusions: saying “Merry Christmas” every morning reduces the risk of cancer disease.
What a nonsense, you may say. Indeed it is. Unfortunately it's not unusual to find similar mistakes in social and medical researches. Actually the real mistake rests often in the the interpretation that journalists, especially those with limited knowledge of methodology of social and medical research, give to such studies. The recent news about beer, women and heart attack is a clear example of this approach. A Swedish study, based on data collected over a 32-year period on 1462 participants, found that women who drank moderate amounts of beer were at a reduced risk of getting heart attacks. Online news magazine jumped immediately to the following conclusions:

Why women should drink beer: Two pints a week slashes the risk of heart attack by a third

Women who drink 2 pints of beer a week cut heart attack risk by a third
(Mirror UK)

As a matter of fact, things are not as straightforward as these headlines claim. The Swedish researchers simply made a correlation of two things (namely: drinking beer and suffering from heart attack), but such correlation can be arbitrary (just as believing that saying “Merry Christmas” every morning has the power to avoid cancer). It is possible that, among the women who drank and didn't have heart problems, a considerable amount of them went to the pub on foot. In this case, what might have prevented them from suffering from heart disease was not the drinking, but the physical activity. We can also assume that those who drink have a more social active life, which is an index of healthy lifestyle. It's not my intention to put down altogether the Swedish research. I'm just saying that we cannot come to convincing conclusions based on a relatively small study like this one (featuring less than 1500 participants in a limited geographical region). The fact that enthusiastic online journalists trumpeted the study results (probably without even reading the whole research) and the benefits of beer, shows three interesting things: 
1) alcohol lobbyists are powerful and always on the lookout for new groups of consumers. Now it's the turn of women (by the way, I am sure a new sensational study on the benefits of alcohol on pregnant women will follow soon...)
2) I detect here a certain disapproval towards people who promote healthy lifestyle and try to highlight the danger of drinking alcohol. For instance, I read the news following a link on FB. The link was posted by some FB female friends of mine who celebrated the good (?) news as a “slap in the face" to those who claim that drinking alcohol is always unhealthy. Such misleading news hit considerably the ego of those suffering from “cognitive dissonance” (a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors: drinking is dangerous vs I like drinking).
3) Beer, wine and alcoholic beverages are very popular in our society, therefore many people don't accept the fact that their consume brings poisoning effects on our body and mind, even if it contributes to specific economic sectors (but causes even larger losses on health budgets).

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Effects of running 40 km per week

Since August I've been running 40 km a week (around 20 km a week under 5 min / km pace) and I've been doing exercises for the upper part of my body every other day. I've also increased considerably the consume of fruits and liquids. Here is a list of the effects I detected on my mind and body:
  • LDL and total Cholesterol, Tryglicerides have decreased;
  • Blood pressure is quite low: 61 / 102 (exercise is known to lower blood pressure);
  • In spite of the fact that I was already quite thin (when I started running in April my weight was 64 kg - my height is 174 cm), I lost 3 more kilos in the last two months. Now my weight is 61 kg, and I think that it's the "minimum" weight I can get;
  • I need for sure a new pair of shoes (after 700 km my Reebok Dash Runners' soles are worn-out);
  • Never felt fitter and lighter than now; 
  • My muscles are tonic, no pain in my joints;
  • I sleep soundly 8 hours at night; 
  • When I run in the morning I feel the need to recharge my batteries in the afternoon (in such cases, even a ten minutes nap is enough);
  • Good mood after each running and exercise session;
  • I feel more and more the need to eat fresh food (fruit, vegetable) rather than processed food or cooked meat, specially after running.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Commercial brainwashing (part 2)

Independent thinkers are not welcome in the market society, where people are passive consumers whose free will must be absolutely switched off. I don't want to put down technological progress, the whole automotive industry and the great amount of services which are now available (if you have money to afford them). The point is that a market economy is based upon growth, but growth, at least on our planet, is limited. Therefore it is not possible to increase production, consumption and waste of natural resources for ever. Moreover, if we really learn to think critically and to reflect on what commercials offer, we might realize that many of these products and services are superfluous. Switching on self-awareness and turning consumers into citizens is something our economy cannot afford, and spreading around concepts like sustainability and critical thinking is a dangerous risk that multinational companies don't want to run. Fashion, trends, emotions, addiction, compulsion, desire to show off and compete help selling much more than wisdom, foresight and discretion. But we are blackmailed: do you want to promote self-awareness and sustainability at the cost of making millions of workers redundant? You must be kidding! The show must go on!  

Commercial brainwashing (part 1)

Commercials are tricky: advertising experts know well how to exploit consumers' weaknesses in order to promote products that we don't really need or we don't even desire. Think about SUV spots on TV: in less than 30 seconds, messages like power, respect, freedom, independence, uniqueness bombard the viewers brain. The fact of the matter is that such vehicles, if purchased by the incautious customer, will cause a lot of problems that the cunning commercial "forgets" to list. Let's imagine a parallel universe, where commercials tell the truth. How would they look like? Here below three funny examples I created. I think that people would make huge steps forward in the process of become independent thinkers and active citizens of this world. On the other hand, economy as we know it would collapse, and I don't dare to think about the counter-effects of this phenomenon if we fail to offer valid alternatives...   

SUV and CARS in general




Friday, September 18, 2015

How I ran 10 km in less than 50 minutes

In June I set myself the task to improve my PB (Personal Best) on various distances. The priority was to break 50 minutes for 10 km. Here below a summary of my modest but (at least for me) gratifying achievements:

5 km
22:20 (average: 4:28 min/km), August 26

7 km
33:00 (average: 4:41 min/km), August 28

10 km
49:17 (average: 4:56 min/km), September 1 (PBs:48:07, 11 October 2011, 47:57, 11 March 2016 )

12 km
59:51 (average: 5 min/km), August 17

14 km
1:10:00 (average: 5 min/km), September 8

Probably the performance that makes me more proud is the 22 minutes and 20 seconds to cover 5 km, which is exactly the same time I made 4 years ago, when I was at the top of my condition (at that time I was able to run 10 km in 48 minutes). I thought I could have never repeated that performance, but I was wrong. Just imagine my surprise when I took a look at my watch after the last sprint! So it isn't always true that when you grow old your times get necessarily worse.

Running 10 km in less than 50 minutes required a certain amount of discipline, but after all it wasn't as hard as I expected. I worked quite a lot on the so-called anaerobic threshold (AT), which is the point where lactic acid begins to accumulate in the bloodstream. In other words, it's the point when you're running out of fuel and you start panting as an old Irish setter. I remember my first run after the winter break: I ran 1 km (yes, just one!) at a 5 min/km pace and I felt I was about to die. Was my AT really so low? It was sad to admit it, but it was true. 

You may ask yourself why I am so fixated with this bloody 5 min/km speed. Well, this is usually considered the border between jogging and running. Many "experts" claim that if you want to be a serious runner, you should run at this pace and of course, if you can, even below. I think that each of us should judge according his or her personal experience, so don't take such suggestions as they were carved in stone.  Anyway, after some years of running, I tend to agree with the "experts". In addition to that, running at a brisk pace is more challenging and entertaining to me. 

So I started running from mid April every other day, trying to push the AT further each session. At the beginning of May I nearly completed 5 km running at a 5 min/km pace and I remember I had to stop 100 meters before the end, exhausted. Nevertheless, I wasn't going to let these obstacles get me down, and I kept following my plan. Unfortunately I had to stop my training for three weeks due to a problem with my heel tendon. In July I resumed my running and gradually I got closer to my 10 km / 50 minutes task. First I covered 7 km in 35 minutes, some days after 8 km in 40 minutes, all this with no particular trouble. Whenever I felt "uncomfortable" (that is, I felt my legs heavy and my breath rhythm became intense), I stopped. Eventually, on August 11 I made it: 49 minutes and 48 seconds to cover 10 km (a PB which I improved by almost 30 seconds some weeks later). 

On the internet you can find for sure many valuable programmes to achieve the same task in less than a month. The method I used is based on patience and discipline and it worked for me (actually it is a method rather than a real plan, as I didn't care so much to achieve my goal in a limited amount of weeks, but I preferred to take all the time it was needed and to accomplish "naturally" my mission). I'd be glad if you want to use the same method. I wish you success and good luck!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

A few words about competition

I love Peanuts! Charles Schulz's humor is so elegant and smart, and it makes you think quite a lot. The strip above is a brilliant example of his refined style (I've been looking that strip for ages and I finally found it on the internet!). Charlie Brown's innocent but logic question "how did the other team feel" might have dampened Linus' enthusiasm, but it is indeed an invitation to reflect about some of the essential values our Western society is based upon, namely competition and individual achievement. 

One of the reason why I like running so much is the lack of competition. Family members see me sweating every day and don't understand why I don't take part in official races. "You could have won for sure! Why don't you compete?". Well, simply because I don't care. More precisely, I don't care to run "against" anyone else but me, and I am not attracted by trophies and accolades. In competitive sports we celebrate the winners as "heroes" and describe their performances as "historical". People tend to forget that their glory depends not only on their undoubted skills, but also on the "losers", those who didn't win and enable them to be in the spotlights. Honestly, I think that they deserve celebration, too.

When I was in high-school and played basketball (many years ago) my trainer told us that if a member of the other team should accidentally fall down on the floor, well, you should keep on playing and make the most of the situation.  Sport journalists would call such attitude "cynicism", an approach which is highly appreciated and it is seen as a sign of maturity and professionalism. I recall that the best players I met, besides being "cynical", looked really absorbed in the game, just as if nothing else outside the field existed. You could say that they were experiencing a sort of "agonistic trance". I have to admit that, right in the middle of the game, when I was handling the ball, I was often tempted to stop the game and hand the ball to the player standing terribly serious and threatening before me, saying: "Take it! It seems you need it much more than I do!". Of course such behavior would have cost me a direct expulsion from any court of the galaxy. But good ol' Charlie Brown would have understood, wouldn't you, Chuck?

Friday, September 4, 2015

Four kinds of pedestrians runners don't like

Are you a serious runner? I mean, the kind of runner who likes to run at a certain pace (let's say, under 5 min / km), who likes to challenge him/herself, who doesn't care so much to show off his/her brand new shoes while running? Well, if you fall into this category, you will probably understand what I am going to talk about. After many years spent running down the road everywhere in the Milky Way, I've come to the conclusion that the majority of people do not sympathize with us. Is it because the typical sedentary, overweight guy feels provoked by the view of someone else moving around without the help of a machine? I don't know. What I know is that, while running, I perceive somehow an unspoken hostility by the people I inevitably meet during my daily run. In spite of the fact that each of them react in a peculiar way, we can categorize such pedestrians into 4 different kinds:

1) The Path Occupier 

No matter how wide the road is, people belonging to this category do their best to occupy the whole pavement, lane or path, usually by extending their arms and by keeping their legs wide open during their sloooow walk. Their strategic position on the road prevent runners from passing by from left or right. Absolutely annoying! 

2) The Kamikaze

Probably the most dangerous group. They wander aimlessly through the pavement at a snail speed, subconsciously targeting the poor runner in a precisely calculated point-of-collision. Since they seem to appear from nowhere, there is no way to avoid the catastrophic crash. 

3) The Indecisive Pedestrian 

You are running fast. You detect someone in the distance. He's standing on the path. He doesn't move. You keep running. You are coming closer and closer, yet he doesn't move an inch. You are about to crash into the Indecisive Pedestrian. This kind of people seem eternally asleep and their only task is to stand in the middle of (your) way. Just a few seconds before the fatal collision, their brain starts functioning again and horror is depicted in their countenance, as if they were thinking "So it's true! In this world 6,999,999 million people REALLY exist beside me! I am not the only one!". They try to avoid you, first moving hesitantly right, then slowly left, but it's too late: CRASH!

4) The Smiling Post

I don't know why, but it seems that bystanders find runners particularly hilarious. So it's not unusual to meet what I call the "smiling post" (the name post comes from the fact that such people usually stand on the curb of the pavement while watching people running). They smile, meet your eyes, keep on smiling and stare at you, in a quite enigmatic fashion. Probably they feel sorry for you, or they think you're a pathetic loser who runs because doesn't own a SUV car, or maybe they just need a friend and they think this is the easiest way to find one...