Tag Archives: exercise

A Moment to Stretch

By Marc Williams

One of our most popular blog entries to date is “Dim Light and Other Hazards,” a discussion of some of the effects of sitting in front of a computer all day.  At the beginning of the semester, before there is a lot of grading to do and emails to answer, it is really quite easy to remember to step away from the computer for a moment to stretch and rest my eyes.  Now that the first BLS session is in its second half and assignments are in need of grading, it is more difficult for me to remain disciplined when it comes to taking breaks.  I’m guessing that others are finding themselves glued to their computer monitors just like me.

Here’s a quick guide from Health.com about back, shoulder, and core health.  While its focus is on “great posture as you age,” I think the tips are applicable to anyone who works in front of a computer all day.  This is important for many of our BLS students who work in front of a computer all day, only to come home at night and work on a computer to complete course assignments.

Is it time for you to stretch?

The Good, the Bad, and the Caffeinated

By Marc Williams

This morning, as I sat with my oversized mug, finishing off the last of what had been nearly a full pot of coffee, I came across yet another article on the effects of coffee on one’s health.  My coffee mug is an extension of my arm: when I’m emailing students, preparing a new lesson, or grading papers, my coffee is always within reach.  As a major coffee drinker (and serious snob) I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to discover if my daily dose of caffeine, size extra grande, was actually doing harm.

Happily, I’ve found much research that suggests my habit is quite healthful: coffee is linked to reduced risk of certain cancers, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, not to mention its ability to increase alertness.  However, sometimes my consumption borders on excess, and the ill effects of high coffee intake have been well-documented: increased risk of certain cancers and acid reflux, plus caffeine addiction can lead to chronic headaches, etc. etc. etc.

So is coffee good for me or bad for me?  I’m confused.

According to Christie Aschwanden of Slate.com, the confusion is widespread–and the uncertainty about coffee’s effect(s) on health is nothing new.  She mentions Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Changed the World.

According to Pendergrast’s book, coffee has stimulated intellectual and often irreverent pursuits among users throughout the ages, often sparking backlash. One governor of Mecca banned the drink after discovering satirical musings about him coming from local coffeehouses. In 1674, a group of London women grew angry with their husbands for spending so much time at coffeehouses (often in an attempt to sober up after the pub), and published a pamphlet warning that the beverage would make them impotent. The men fought back with a competing pamphlet claiming that coffee actually added a “spiritualescency to the Sperme.” In 1679, French doctors blasted coffee, because it “disaccustom[ed] people from the enjoyment of wine.”

While the debate’s historical component is fascinating, I want answers. According to Aschwanden’s article, University of Alabama physician Melissa Wellons  compiled the various medical studies and concluded that most of the physical effects of caffeinated beverages are “observational,” meaning that causality has not been adequately demonstrated.  In comparing these observational effects side-by-side, Aschwanden concludes that the positive effects outweigh the negative.

So it appears, at least for now, I can slurp away.

Is the Future of Racing a Thing of the Past?

By Jay Parr

NASCAR

As anyone who has made the mistake of taking I-85 past Concord on a race day knows, NASCAR is one of the largest professional sporting organizations in the country. Major events draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the stands, and sometimes millions of viewers watching from home or their favorite sports bar. Total revenues are in the billions of dollars, and the revenues of the top teams are in the tens of millions of dollars apiece. It’s a huge business.

We tend to think of auto racing as being at the forefront of high-performance technology, but that’s not actually the case in NASCAR. The regulations in that organization dictate that the cars must be front engine and rear wheel drive, despite the fact that the street versions of those cars are almost all front-wheel drive. But it doesn’t stop there. The engines must have carburetors, not the fuel injection of most cars on the road today. They must be naturally aspirated, so they can’t have the turbochargers that are becoming so common in passenger cars today. They must have pushrod-operated valves, so they can’t even have the overhead cams found in a twenty-year-old Saturn. Far from being at the leading edge of engine technology, NASCAR engines use hundred-year-old technology that is arguably fifty years out of date.

Tour de France

Auto racing is not the only racing sport where the rules place big restrictions on the technology used. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France or any other major bicycle race, you may have noticed that all the bikes look almost identical. That is not a coincidence, and it is not because the bike you see is the best configuration for performance. Nearly a century ago, shortly after the familiar diamond-framed “safety bicycle” took over popularity from the dangerous old high-wheeled “ordinary bicycle,” a Frenchman by the name of Charles Mochet designed the first commercially-produced recumbent bicycle. The rider sat back as if on a chaise lounge, with his feet stretched out in front of him and the rear wheel behind his back. It won several major races, and in 1934 it broke the one-hour world record when his rider covered 28 miles—and the wins and the record were all piloted by second-tier cyclists. At their very next meeting, the International Cyclist’s Union (UCI) decided that recumbent bicycles could not compete against diamond-framed bicycles in any major bicycle race. That is why you never see a recumbent bicycle in the Tour de France—despite the fact that they’re faster, more aerodynamic, more comfortable to race, and much safer in an accident.

Recumbent bicycles

In both of these racing venues—motorized and human-powered—political decisions have kept the sport from evolving toward superior technologies. The philosophy in both cases is to put the emphasis on human competition, but the technological ramifications reach far beyond the racetrack. In the past, the highly-funded and competitive environment of racing has led to major advances in both efficiency and safety. Your brake lights, rear-view mirrors, seat belts, and radial tires were all pioneered in race cars, as were many other features you take for granted, like the side-impact bars in your doors, the fuel injection that has doubled your gas mileage, and the variable timing advance that allows your engine to run efficiently at a wide variety of RPMs. Even on a dime-store bicycle, the gearing and brake technology were perfected in the racing world before trickling down to the kids’ beater bikes.

Restricting the natural advance of racing technology has a negative impact, not only on racing sports, but on the society as a whole. Consumer technology tends to mimic high-performance technology, and to benefit from high-tech advances in a trickle-down effect. Imagine how the world might look if the UCI had forbidden the chain-driven safety bicycle. Would the serious cyclists be teetering around on top of huge 54-inch wheels? Would we be afraid to teach our children to ride bikes for fear they might take a header and break their necks? Now, imagine it the other way, if the UCI had not forbidden the recumbent. Would most of us be cruising around on comfy lawn chairs? Would we stare in amusement when we saw one of those old dangerous head-first relics? Would our kids be more likely to land on a nice soft buttock instead of a fragile face or wrist when they dumped their bikes?

What if NASCAR technology had been allowed to develop unchecked? Pit stops happen on the clock, so it’s entirely conceivable that racing engineers would have poured a lot of attention into increasing fuel efficiency to minimize those stops. If they had been allowed to experiment unchecked, would we have race cars that could complete a 600-mile race on ten gallons of fuel? Imagine how that technology would trickle down to a little Nissan on the highway. Think about that next time you’re fueling up for that trip down I-85.

Cyclist Sam Whittingham exceeds 82 mph in a streamlined recumbent bicycle.

Dim Light and Other Hazards

By Marc Williams

About two years ago, I hurt my back.  I wasn’t doing anything extraordinarily physical–just some routine chores around the house.  The pain was significant and it lasted quite awhile.  After a few weeks of waiting for the injury to heal and for the pain to subside on its own, I went to the doctor, who referred me to a physical therapist.  I couldn’t believe that some simple chores around the house were causing me such trouble.  However, I learned from the physical therapist that the problem had not resulted from house work.  My injury was caused by bad posture.

The BLS program at UNCG is an online degree program and as an instructor, I spend nearly all of my working day in front of a computer.  While in front of the computer, my posture generally looks something like the image below.

Less than ideal posture.

But how can bad posture cause an injury like the one I experienced?  The key ingredient for me was time.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, my reliance upon a computer to do my job puts me in the 55% majority of Americans who use a computer at work.  However, my personal computer usage for work exceeds the three hours per day national average.  I’d estimate that my work activities demand roughly six hours per day staring at my computer screen, about double the national average.  But this level of use doesn’t make me unusual; the same Bureau of Labor Statistics study cited above shows a much higher rate of computer use among “managers and professionals,” (about 80%) and the rate of computer use among those with college degrees is also higher than the national average.    It seems that higher levels of academic and professional achievement correlate to computer use in the work place.

Paul Lieberstein (Toby, L) and Steve Carrell (Michael, R) on The Office.

As I considered how my computer reliance affected my health, I was reminded of one of my favorite television shows, The OfficeHere’s the episode, titled “Safety Training,” in which branch manager Michael Scott attempts to make office work seem dangerous–an obvious attempt to prove his masculinity to the warehouse staff who operate heavy machines.

H.R. representative Toby advises the employees to take hourly breaks from their computers to rest their eyes and he cautions about depression-related office conditions that include dim lighting.  Of course these health threats are exaggerated by Michael and dismissed by the warehouse staff.  While the examples are given in a comedic context, my experience suggests that computer work can indeed be tough on the body and mind.

After much experimenting, I’ve found that Toby’s advice on The Office is sound.  I try to get up from the computer every hour to stretch, move around, interact with real people whenever possible, and go outside.  I found that I needed exercises to strengthen my back and I use a few yoga positions to help negate the “hunchback” posture I use at my desk.  The routine could use some variety so I’m always looking for new ideas.  I’ve often wondered how my colleagues–and our students–deal with the effects of computer use.   Any tips?