Archive for September, 2009

Pulling together increases your pain threshold reports on “a study of Oxford rowers [that] shows members of a team who exercise together are able to tolerate twice as much pain as when they train on their own.”

In the study, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers from the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology found the pain threshold of 12 rowers from the Oxford Boat Race squad was greater after group training than after individual training.

Each of the 12 rowers participated in four separate tests. They were asked to row continuously for 45 minutes in a virtual boat in the gym (as in normal training), in an exercise carried out in two teams of six and then in a separate session as individuals, unobserved by other team members. After each of the sessions, the researchers measured their pain threshold by how long they could stand an inflated blood pressure cuff on the arm.

The study found there was a significant increase in the rowers’ pain threshold following exercise in both individual and group sessions (a well established response to exercise of any kind). However, after the group training there was a significantly larger increase as compared with training carried out individually.

Since close synchrony is the key to successful competition-class racing, these results suggest that doing a synchronised activity as a group increases the endorphin rush that we get from physical exertion. The study says that since endorphins help to create a sense of bonhomie and positive effect, this effect may underlie the experience of warmth and belonging that we have when we do activities like dancing, sports, religious rituals and other forms of communal exercise together.

Professor Robin Dunbar, Head of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, said: ‘Previous research suggests that synchronised physical activity such as laughter, music and many religious activities makes people happier and is part of the bonding process. We also know that physical exercise creates a natural high through the release of endorphins. What this study shows us is that synchrony alone seems to ramp up the production of endorphins so as to heighten the effect when we do these activities in groups.’

The entire article, “Rowers’ high: Behavioral synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds,” by Emma E. A. Cohen, Robin Ejsmond-Frey, Nicola Knight, and R.I.M. Dunbar, is available online.


September 30, 2009 at 7:21 am 4 comments

NYT: Can the right kind of play teach self-control

As summarized by the Bay Area Edupreneur News Bulletin:

Over the last few years, a new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development, a phrase that sounds more as if it belongs in the boardroom than the classroom: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.

The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests.

The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children. In one recent national survey, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers said that at least half the kids in their classes had problems following directions. In another study, Head Start teachers reported that more than a quarter of their students exhibited serious self-control-related negative behaviors, like kicking or threatening other students, at least once a week. Walter Gilliam, a professor at Yale’s child-study center, estimates that each year, across the country, more than 5,000 children are expelled from pre-K programs because teachers feel unable to control them.

September 29, 2009 at 1:20 am 2 comments

Stand Up!

In browsing through a collection of “stories of interest,” I came across a NYT article from February of this year about how some classrooms are being redesigned without chairs. By forcing students to stand (rather than sit) at their desks, teachers are reporting an decrease in fidgety behavior among their students and an increase in attention paid to academics. From “Student stand when called upon, and when not“:

Dr. James A. Levine, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, advocates what he calls “activity-permissive” classrooms, including stand-up desks.

“We can’t say for sure that this has an impact on those two things, but we’re hypothesizing that they may,” said Beth A. Lewis of the School of Kinesiology, or movement science, at the University of Minnesota. “I think we’re so used to the traditional classroom it’s taken a while for people to start thinking outside the box. I think it’s just a matter of breaking the mold.”

“Having many children sit in a classroom isn’t the craziest idea, but look at how children have changed,” Dr. Levine said of the sedentary lives of many. “We also have to change, to meet their needs.”

Teachers in Minnesota and Wisconsin say they know from experience that the desks help give children the flexibility they need to expend energy and, at the same time, focus better on their work rather than focusing on how to keep still.

Researchers should soon know whether they can confirm those calorie-burning and scholastic benefits. Two studies under way at the University of Minnesota are using data collected from Ms. Brown’s classroom and others in Minnesota and Wisconsin that are using the new desks. The pupils being studied are monitored while using traditional desks as well, and the researchers are looking for differences in physical activity and academic achievement.

I wrote a similar-themed post on an older (now defunct) blog back in 2007:

In today’s in-front-of-the-television, in-the-car, on-the-computer culture, getting 30-60 minutes of vigorous exercise and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is not enough to help us lose weight. We also need to (drum roll please)… Stand up!

In a new study from scientists at the University of Missouri, reported by ABC News, “scientists say just standing up may be as important as exercise” in maintaining overall fitness and health.

The peer-reviewed study was published this month in the academic journal Diabetes. Marc Hamilton is the associate professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia and leader of the research team that conducted this study. According to the ABC News summary of the study, “We have to pay more attention to what’s happening when we aren’t in the gym, because the body’s ability to dispose of fat virtually shuts down, at least if we’re sitting down.”

As for how to best stimulate the body during our often sedentary workdays, it doesn’t take much — simple puttering gets the blood flowing. But if taking a two minute walk break every hour to the bathroom or office kitchen is too difficult to manage in one’s always-on-always-working workday, simply standing up works the large leg and back muscles necessary for helping to burn fat. When we sit, the enzyme responsible for burning fat is suppressed.

This reminds me of an anecdote I heard of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Apparently, annoyed about attending a meeting that easily stretched into the longer end of an hour, he took all the chairs out of the conference room. The next meeting, people were forced to stand. The result: the meeting was over in less than 15 minutes.


Related: “Spending the workday at 1 MPH

September 27, 2009 at 7:13 am 2 comments

A primal, practical and playful life

Play As If Your Life Depends on It is Frank Forencich’s manifesto about the benefits — nay, the necessity — of re-integrating play into our daily lives.

The book, while an important meditation on physical movement and a call to action, may be hard to track down. Fortunately, back when PAIYLDOI was self-published in 2003, ABC News published an excerpt that introduced Frank’s “[three] principals for building an effective and enjoyable physical fitness program”:

After two decades of study, struggle and experimentation I’ve come to the conclusion that what we need is a paradigm for human fitness that meets a few simple conditions: it’s got to have some relevance to human origins, it’s got to speak to the functional performance of the human body and it’s got to be fun. In other words, we need a paradigm for exercise and fitness that’s primal, practical and playful.

The entire excerpt can be found here; Frank’s companion blog, complete with videos of various movement games, can be found at

Exuberant Animal also has a collection of functional fitness games to tap into your inner animal.

Below is a great video of Frank giving a presentation titled, “A Body Centered Curriculum: The Primate’s Predicament.” One of my favorite parts of his presentation is the observation that health professionals are required to provide a warning that says, “Before beginning an exercise program, see your doctor” — an announcement that suggests vigorous physical activity is somehow outside the norms of modern human living.

Frank suggests an amendment to the current label, such that it reads: “Before you begin a program of physical inactivity, consult your physician.” According to the Archives of Internal Medicine, there are 300,000 premature deaths due to inactivity and poor diet every year (!); thus, the standard announcement should warn us that “Physical inactivity is abnormal and dangerous to your health.”

The crisis is more about our physical health, however; it’s an epidemic of lost physicality — of the fact that we no longer use and experience our bodies in any meaningful way. Despite “the mismatch between physiology and the modern world,” Frank’s message is hopeful and prescriptive, reminding us that our bodies are designed to help us engage in exuberant, playful, physical experiences. We simply need to go primal!

September 25, 2009 at 4:52 am 3 comments

“Fall Forward”

“Fall Forward”: Another Power 10 spinning mix…

September 24, 2009 at 5:12 pm Leave a comment


The summary of this film doesn’t do it justice: “Set against the breathtaking backdrop of the Himalayas, BLINDSIGHT follows the gripping adventure of six Tibetan teenagers who set out to climb the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. The dangerous journey soon becomes a seemingly impossible challenge — made all the more remarkable by the fact that the teenagers are blind.”

Blindsight is, simply, one of the more affecting movies about adventure, struggle, and the human spirit that I have watched. A truly inspiring documentary.

The entire movie can be watched for free on Hulu; its official website is here.

September 24, 2009 at 3:25 pm Leave a comment

Playing with a cricket bat

With the ICC Cricket Champions Trophy still up-for-grabs, the coach of India’s national team is encouraging his athletes to engage in some — um, performance-enhancing shenanigans.

According to a “secret document” being passed around the team by its coach and mental conditioning expert, having sex before a competitive contest increases physical performance:

From a physiological perspective, having sex increases testosterone levels, which cause an increase in strength, energy, aggression and competitiveness. Conversely, not having sex for a period of a few months causes a significant drop in testosterone levels in both males and females, with the corresponding passiveness and decrease in aggression.

According to a front-page article in the Hindustan Times and summarized by Breitbart:

“If you want sex but do not have someone to share it with, one option is to go solo whilst imagining you have a partner, or a few partners, who are as beautiful as you wish to imagine,” the document said.

“No pillow talk and no hugging required. Just roll over and go to sleep.”

Enforced celibacy may also affect performance, the advice said.

“You may experience that your mind spends more time focusing on the fire in your groin than on good sport practice, preparation and sleep,” the document said.

The document also stresses the importance of being aggressive on the field from the start, self-improvement and healthy eating.

September 24, 2009 at 5:16 am Leave a comment

Older Posts

Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 88 other followers

Twitter Feed