Friday, September 14, 2007

Fad exercise system bad for backs

Sadly, this stuff is very popular among middle-class women

PILATES exercises could cause more harm than good to some back-pain sufferers, controversial research suggests. Studies into the ``drawing in'' method, a fundamental Pilates technique, have found the process may exacerbate pre-existing back conditions. The technique involves participants drawing in their stomachs to their spines - and lifting the pelvic floor.

Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, told The Sunday Telegraph that by targeting the core, transverse abdominal muscle, people were potentially weakening their spines. "If you hollow in, you bring the muscles closer to the spine, which reduces the stability of the back, so inherently you create a more unstable column,'' he said. Professor McGill said he had reached this conclusion after analysing how varying loads and forces affected the way the spine functioned.

"Consider a fishing rod upright, with the butt on the ground," he said. "It would buckle with a few grams of load placed on top, (but) attach wires to the rod at different levels ... and the rod will bear many kilos without buckling. "Now bring the wire attachments on the ground closer to the base of the rod. Not only is the rod weakened, but it will buckle at a lower load. Your spine acts the same way.''

Pilates has long been trumpeted as helping its millions of followers stay toned and slim, while improving their posture and relieving back pain. Its popularity has surged in recent years as people flock to classes. Celebrities such as Madonna and Liz Hurley swear by its results.

Professor McGill said that although he believed Pilates in its purest form was advantageous for some, instructors should target all core muscles in the body and take into account their students' fitness levels and injury history. He said people should forget about "drawing in'' and the transverse abdominal muscle and simply stiffen all the muscles and the abdominal wall at a level to match each task.

But Dr Chris Cain, a leading Australian spinal surgeon, believes Pilates is an effective, low-impact activity for all people, regardless of age. "Pilates is not a cure for back problems, but it does help people manage their symptoms and reduce the impact of activities,'' Dr Cain said. "The original form of Pilates is actually a very good principle in terms of establishing core stability.''


Male brain and autism

The theory that autism is caused by an extreme version of the “male brain” has won strong support from new research showing that male hormones in the womb are linked to social and emotional skills in childhood. Scientists at the University of Cambridge found that both boys and girls who are exposed to high levels of testosterone before they are born are more likely than usual to develop traits typical of autism, such as a preference for solitary activities and strong numerical and pattern-recognition skills.

The study included only children who are not autistic, but it gives some of the firmest biological evidence yet that the social impairments that characterise the condition may be affected by prenatal hormone exposure. This in turn backs the theory that autistic people are best understood as having extreme versions of a brain type that is common in the population at large, particularly among men.

The idea advanced by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who leads the Cambridge team, is that human brains are predominantly attuned either to empathising with others, or to understanding how systems work. Women are more likely to be in the first group and men in the second, while autistic people are extreme systemisers whose social problems emerge from a fundamental difficulty with empathy. The model fits with the observation that autism is four times more common among boys. One possible explanation is that male hormones in the womb could promote systemising at the expense of empathy. Very high exposures may thus trigger autism.

Professor Baron-Cohen’s study, conducted with his graduate student, Bonnie Auyeung, looked at prenatal testosterone levels in 235 foetuses whose mothers had had amniocentesis. When the children were born, they were followed up to assess their psychological development. The latest data, from questionnaires given to mothers when the children were eight, were presented yesterday at the British Association Festival of Science in York. While all the children were developmentally normal, boys and girls who had higher levels of foetal testosterone were significantly more likely to have a large number of autistic traits such as preferring playing alone to joining in at birthday parties, and being good at remembering numerical patterns, such as car numberplates. About 20 per cent of the variation between children’s autistic traits appeared to match foetal testosterone levels, with the remainder likely to be caused by genetic and environmental factors. [Weak effect, in other words] Previous research with the same group of children has shown that at 12 months, children with high foetal testosterone make less eye contact with their parents and look at others’ faces less frequently. At 18 months, they have a smaller vocabulary than children exposed to lower concentrations of the male hormone.

Professor Baron-Cohen said that the results did not prove that the link between male hormones and autistic traits was causal: both could be the result of something else. He also said that his team had not yet examined autistic children, only autistic traits in the normal population. Even so, he said, the work added strong biological evidence to his extreme male brain theory. “The hypothesis was based on observed sex differences,” he said. “Simply put, girls tend to show better empathy, and boys tend to have a stronger interest in systems. Children with autism seem to have an exaggerated version of typical male preferences. They have a strong interest in systems, and difficulty empathising. “We are now moving from a psychological level down to a biological level. It is an exciting development.”

Professor Baron-Cohen has won funding from the Medical Research Council to conduct a study using two large databases in Denmark, an archive of 90,000 amniocentesis samples, and a national register of people with psychological or developmental disorders. He said: “We are going to look at who has a diagnosis of autism and then pick out their amniocentesis sample and look at testosterone.” Professor Baron-Cohen said it was unlikely that it would be possible to prevent autism by controlling foetal testosterone, not least because doing so might adversely affect other aspects of foetal development.


Senator Tom Harkin, School Nutritionist

The latest newsworthy assault by the Nanny State on freedom and federalism is Senate Bill 771, or The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2007. Actually, call it a renewed assault. The legislation's chief sponsor is Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry. Harkin is conspicuous for his leadership on health and nutrition issues. Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) has sponsored an identical measure (House Resolution 1363). The measures, if passed, would continue Washington's iron grip on school cafeterias and extend the Feds' reach to what foods and beverages are sold in schools anywhere at any time.

On the face of it, the measures seem innocuous enough, do-good attempts by Senator Harkin, Representative Woolsey and cosponsors to fight childhood obesity by improving the diets of kids from pre-school through high school. But it begs the questions: "What business is it of Washington politicians to decide what kids eat at schools in Des Moines, Santa Rosa, Anchorage or Canton? And why does Senator Harkin, the prime mover behind this effort, and a handful of government-approved experts, know better than parents and local schools what kids should eat?"

The Senate and House bills are yet more evidence of what happens when Washington gets its hooks into activities that are historically and naturally the province of individuals and communities. Federal support for school meals began when the school lunch program was created by Congress in 1946. However well-intended, the program was, in large part, a sop to farmers and other agricultural interests that benefited from taxpayer money. Those tax dollars were earmarked for the purchase of "nutritious agricultural commodities"-a lot of surplus milk, butter and cheese, in other words. In 1966, school breakfast programs were added conditionally and, then, permanently, in 1975.

The rationale for the 1946 program and its extension in 1966 was that too many kids were going hungry, and if not hungry, then malnourished. No doubt, in pockets throughout the country, many rural, where large concentrations of poor children lived, school meals were a benefit. But these programs weren't targeted only at the neediest school districts-in the Ozarks, for example-but in time, grew to encompass all districts. As of 2005, Washington spent approximately $9.5 billion annually on school meal and commodities programs.

The argument put forward now is that kids from Appalachia to upscale Westchester County aren't hungry anymore. In fact, they're overeating, and, according to research, began doing so in the 1960s, despite claims then that hunger or malnutrition was the primary threat to kids. The kicker is that due to rigid federal regulations, meant to give hungry kids plenty of fat, starch and calories in school meals, Washington has been contributing handsomely to the "Childhood Obesity Epidemic" for decades. If schools wanted federal dollars for meal programs, then they had to abide by Washington's rules, and those rules were designed for hungry kids-not for kids who are adding inches to their waistlines.

Now, Senator Harkin wishes to remedy the problem by updating the definition of "food of minimal nutritional value," as well as aggregate to Washington broad authority over what foods are sold "outside the school meal programs, on the school campus and at any time during the school day." While this may be meritorious in one sense, in another, it raises questions: "Where has Congress been all these years?" Why has it taken so long for Congress to recognize that Washington is actually doing harm by insisting on nutritional standards for school meals that are so out of sync with the changing realities of kids' diets?

The answer isn't simple, but it can be simplified. Washington's tendency, in the first place, is to create one-size-fits-all rules to accompany the taxpayer dollars it redistributes. And not only does Washington lack the capacity to adapt its rules to the thousands of communities that comprise this large and diverse nation, it lacks the ability to change quickly, due to the inherent cumbersomeness of the national legislature and the federal bureaucracy. Contributing to this inertia are the many interests that have a stake in the status quo, largely financial. And, in the case of Washington politicians who curry favor with these interests, it's about contributions, prestige and the power that goes with dispensing billions of dollars and overseeing gargantuan programs. If change comes, more often than not, these politicians need to see their advantage.

Given that Washington hasn't proven to be a very adept or adroit school nutritionist, what makes anyone think that yet another uniform approach to nutrition, coupled with controls over what other foods are sold on campuses, will do the trick? And why is Washington in the business of writing menus in the first place?

Parents and Schools Should Decide What Kids Eat

One can go very deeply into the weeds finding fault with Washington's meddling with school meal programs. The same holds true for the Senate and House bills. But what these initiatives represent is a reissuing of a decades-old proclamation, in stronger terms, by Congressional leaders: that Washington knows better than parents and schools what is best for their children. More broadly, it is an article of no faith. Parents and schools either can't, or won't, act in the best interests of their kids. Without Senator Harkin writing school menus, without the Feds padlocking soda and snack machines, and without an army of junk food police patrolling school halls to confiscate stashes of Twinkies or Fritos, why, kids would go from fat to freakish.

Certainly, no one is trivializing good nutrition. In recent years, there has been an increasing flow of information from the health community about what constitutes good diets. Most certainly, this information is getting to parents and will have a positive influence on most of them, not only in how kids are fed at home but how they're fed in schools. It is the hallmark of a free society that most people, being sensible, make changes when presented with reliable information and persuasive arguments.

But that may not be good enough for Senator Harkin and his cohorts. Senate Bill 771 and House Resolution 1363 betray a fundamental lack of trust by Mr. Harkin and Ms. Woolsey in the very people who elect them to office. It demonstrates that they don't believe that change will come, not unless, very belatedly, Washington dictates it.

These measures are another assault, among many assaults, on the notion that free people make the best decisions and that government closest to the people governs most effectively. Proper Congressional legislation would liberate school cafeterias from the shackles of federal government mandates. And Washington should keep its hands off any other foods sold on campuses. If Washington wants to provide guidelines or recommendations, fine. But let schools across the nation, in concert with parents, assess the dietary needs of their kids and write the menus.

But, then, for Senator Harkin, and too many of his colleagues, such would appear to be a radical and dangerous idea: the idea the Founders called federalism.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

Trans fats:

For one summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and the evidence of lasting harm from them is dubious. By taking extreme groups in trans fats intake, some weak association with coronary heart disease has at times been shown in some sub-populations but extreme group studies are inherently at risk of confounding with other factors and are intrinsically of little interest to the average person.


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