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Friday, July 11, 2008

Science of Sport humour

Innovation and truth in physiology: (and a humorous, great tip for fat loss, straight out of the 1930's)

Since it's a Friday afternoon, and few people are focused on anything serious, I thought I'd do something of a humorous post today, linked to what people have been writing in recently about "fact vs fiction" when it comes to human physiology (which is our staple diet, after all).

We have a big week ahead of us, and so we're saving some of the more in-depth analysis for next week, when you can look forward to:

  • A discussion of the Kenyan "failures" on the track in Olympic and World Champions in the last 15 years. Why has Kenya won only ONE out of the last ELEVEN major titles at 10,000m, for example?
  • More analysis on Oscar Pistorius, who runs tonight in Rome. The picture is slowly emerging on the "science" he produced to legally clear his way at the CAS. Next week, we'll bring you discussion of those tests, and present that Pistorius is a physiological impossibility, thanks to his carbon fibre blades.
  • Continued coverage of the Tour de France which hits the big mountains on Sunday and Monday. This will include more discussion about the feeding strategies, what riders eat, and the physiology and tactics of the race.
But for today, we look at weight loss (as a prelude to further discussion of this topic, once all the sports news is past):

A hot weight loss tip from the 1930's: Introducing Sylvia-from-Hollywood

So here is a weight loss tip straight out of 1930, which I came across a link from a great blog called Half-Fast, which is worth reading for running humour. The post on narcolepsy is a great read, but spend a while going through the posts if you have time or feel like a laugh. But it was a link to this article on a book from 1930's advocating some truly bizarre methods for weight loss that made me laugh.

It turns out that the 1930's were much like today, with people selling "revolutionary ideas" - all that has changed is the platform and method of communication. The following is an excerpt from a book called "No More Alibis", written by a Sylvia of Hollywood. It seems that Sylvia was something of a Jane Fonda of the 1930's. This is her advice for fat loss:

In case you wondered how this might look, there was a picture:

I guess the less said the better! I have few words to add to Sylvia's description (no, it doesn't work!) Though it would seem that if you squeeze often enough, you develop an upper body like a WWE Superstar!

Innovation and progress: Leading us away from truth

Getting more serious now, the advice above, while laughable, is typical of what you'll find today, in various forms. This post on marketing and weight loss (our first venture into these waters) is inspired by a combination of some of your recent comments, work I did recently here in SA, and then a general theme here at The Science of Sport. Those who've been reading recently will know that we've had some discussion around "innovation" and scientific progress, as applied to things like running technique, training, diet, running shoes, and now weight loss. Our general approach (as scientists and as people) is to be sceptical of anything that is punted as "revolutionary", because the packaging of "revolutions" almost always compromises the facts!

I was then recently asked to give a presentation on "The Science of Weight Loss" here at the Sports Science Institute of SA where I work. In preparing that talk, I got to thinking that when it comes to making a profit, innovation usually leads us further and further away from the truth.

In other words, whenever someone packages and then tries to sell an idea (be it technology and training, technique, shoes, or methods for weight loss), they have to be novel and innovative, in order to stand out among the clutter. When you do a search on Amazon.com for "weight loss", you find 60,000 books in the results! Now, if you're the guy writing book number 60,001, you have to innovate, find a point of differentiation. That is obvious, but the problem is that this innovation often leads us away from truth and into fiction.

Weight loss: We've lost sight of the truth thanks to rampant marketing

Take for example the following article, which was sent to us by Steve (thanks Steve!)

The Cardio-free diet: Optimal method for weight loss?

We'll discuss this concept in more detail at some stage. But briefly, it talks about a revolutionary new method for weight loss, where ZERO cardio training should be done. We won't discuss the merits of the argument here, other than to say that it's a very (very) shaky theory, to say the least. The entire basis for the argument is flawed, and the "evidence" to back up the theory is weak and empty. Truth is, cardio is needed, and is crucial to weight loss success. But remember, Jim Karas wants your money, and why would you pay for something that everyone else is doing?

The same goes for running technique - you'd never pay hundreds of dollars to be told that you should run using common sense principles! But when a technique is packaged and then sold, with someone cashing the cheque on the other end, then you have a market. And that is unfortunately what happens.

I must make clear that this is NOT always the case, and there are some excellent ideas and products. And even the theory is often sound - in the case of running techniques, for example, I think the principles are good, I'd advocate them, but it's the "packaging" and sale of technique as a product that I have issue with, as you'll have seen reading our series on Running technique from start to finish!

Quite where the discerning consumer must go to distinguish between genuine progress in understanding and marketing fad is difficult to know. I guess knowledge is power and insurance, but the fact that these concepts have existed for perhaps 80 years (and more) is evidence that the market will always exist, and people will always try to exploit it.

Weight loss - an unexplored territory

At the risk of committing to yet another topic that we should look into in the future, weight loss is a great topic for physiology, because it provides good context for discussion. So I'm sure we'll pick it up in the future, just don't know when!

Have a great weekend, enjoy The Tour de France and the Golden League athletics from Rome!


Credit to 15minute lunch for the Sylvia article - also some funny content on his site


Ian said...

As always, thanks for the link and the kind words.

Anonymous said...

I know it's been a while, but I'd love to see some more info about the science of weight loss in the near future! I stumbled upon your blog as a result of reading Runner's World. I've a lot of weight to lose, and part of how I'm doing it is to run, working towards the ultimate goal of a half-marathon. I hope you'll discuss weight loss again soon!