To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons

 

 

By PAM BELLUCK

The New York Times, Published: April 18, 2011

 

The other day, Paul Simon was rehearsing a favorite song: his own “Darling Lorraine,” about a love that starts hot but turns very cold. He found himself thinking about a three-note rhythmic pattern near the end, where Lorraine (spoiler alert) gets sick and dies.

 

 

What Makes Music Expressive?

 

How Musicians Communicate Emotion

 

 

 

Yannick Grandmont for The New York Times

TEMPO AND DYNAMICS Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University in Montreal researches the effects of music on listeners.

“The song has that triplet going on underneath that pushes it along, and at a certain point I wanted it to stop because the story suddenly turns very serious,” Mr. Simon said in an interview.

“The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.

The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.

Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians.

And what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns.

Daniel J. Levitin, director of the laboratory for music perception, cognition and expertise at McGill University in Montreal, began puzzling over musical expression in 2002, after hearing a live performance of one of his favorite pieces, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27.

“It just left me flat,” Dr. Levitin, who wrote the best seller “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton, 2006), recalled in a video describing the project. “I thought, well, how can that be? It’s got this beautiful set of notes. The composer wrote this beautiful piece. What is the pianist doing to mess this up?”

Before entering academia, Dr. Levitin worked in the recording industry, producing, engineering or consulting for Steely Dan, Blue Öyster Cult, the Grateful Dead, Santana, Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder. He has played tenor saxophone with Mel Tormé and Sting, and guitar with David Byrne. (He also performs around campus with a group called Diminished Faculties.)

After the Mozart mishap, Dr. Levitin and a graduate student, Anjali Bhatara, decided to try teasing apart some elements of musical expression in a rigorous scientific way.

He likened it to tasting two different pots de crème: “One has allspice and ginger and the other has vanilla. You know they taste different but you can’t isolate the ingredient.”

To decipher the contribution of different musical flavorings, they had Thomas Plaunt, chairman of McGill’s piano department, perform snatches of several Chopin nocturnes on a Disklavier, a piano with sensors under each key recording how long he held each note and how hard he struck each key (a measure of how loud each note sounded). The note-by-note data was useful because musicians rarely perform exactly the way the music is written on the page — rather, they add interpretation and personality to a piece by lingering on some notes and quickly releasing others, playing some louder, others softer.

The pianist’s recording became a blueprint, what researchers considered to be the 100 percent musical rendition. Then they started tinkering. A computer calculated the average loudness and length of each note Professor Plaunt played. The researchers created a version using those average values so that the music sounded homogeneous and evenly paced, with every eighth note held for an identical amount of time, each quarter note precisely double the length of an eighth note.

They created other versions too: a 50 percent version, with note lengths and volume halfway between the mechanical average and the original, and versions at 25 percent, 75 percent, and even 125 percent and 150 percent, in which the pianist’s loud notes were even louder, his longest-held notes even longer.

Study subjects listened to them in random order, rating how emotional each sounded. Musicians and nonmusicians alike found the original pianist’s performance most emotional and the averaged version least emotional.

But it was not just changes in volume and timing that moved them. Versions with even more variation than the original, at 125 percent and 150 percent, did not strike listeners as more emotional.

“I think it means that the pianist is very experienced in using these expressive cues,” said Dr. Bhatara, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Université Paris Descartes. “He’s using them at kind of an optimal level.”

And random versions with volume and note-length changes arbitrarily sprinkled throughout made almost no impression.

All of this makes perfect sense to Paul Simon.

“I find it fascinating that people recognize what the point of the original version is, that that’s their peak,” he said. “People like to feel the human element, but if it becomes excessive then I guess they edit it back. It’s gilding the lily, it’s too Rococo.”

The Element of Surprise

Say the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is playing a 12-minute sonata featuring a four-note melody that recurs several times. On the final repetition, the melody expands, to six notes.

“If I set it up right,” Mr. Ma said in an interview, “that is when the sun comes out. It’s like you’ve been under a cloud, and then you are looking once again at the vista and then the light is shining on the whole valley.”

But that happens, he said, only if he is restrained enough to save some exuberance and emphasis for that moment, so that by the time listeners see that musical sun they have not already “been to a disco and its light show” and been “blinded by cars driving at night with the headlights in your eyes.”

Dr. Levitin’s results suggest that the more surprising moments in a piece, the more emotion listeners perceive — if those moments seem logical in context.

“It’s deviation from a pattern,” Mr. Ma said. “A surprise is only a surprise when you know it departs from something.”

He cited Schubert’s E-Flat Trio for piano, violin and cello as an example. It goes from a “march theme that’s in minor and it breaks out into major, and it’s one of those goose-bump moments.”

The departure “could be something incredibly slight that means something huge, or it could be very large but that’s actually a fake-out,” Mr. Ma said.

The singer Bobby McFerrin, who visited Dr. Levitin’s lab and walked through several experiments, said in a video of that visit that “one of the things that I have found valuable to me in a performance, whether I’m performing or someone else is, is a certain element of naïveté,” as if “as we’re performing we’re still discovering the music.”

In an interview, the singer Rosanne Cash said the experiments showed that beautiful compositions and technically skilled performers could do only so much. Emotion in music depends on human shading and imperfections, “bending notes in a certain way,” Ms. Cash said, “holding a note a little longer.”

She said she learned from her father, Johnny Cash, “that your style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.”

“You’ve heard plenty of great, great singers that leave you cold,” she said. “They can do gymnastics, amazing things. If you have limitations as a singer, maybe you’re forced to find nuance in a way you don’t have to if you have a four-octave range.”

The Musical Brain

The brain processes musical nuance in many ways, it turns out. Edward W. Large, a music scientist at Florida Atlantic University, scanned the brains of people with and without experience playing music as they listened to two versions of a Chopin étude: one recorded by a pianist, the other stripped down to a literal version of what Chopin wrote, without human-induced variations in timing and dynamics.

During the original performance, brain areas linked to emotion activated much more than with the uninflected version, showing bursts of activity with each deviation in timing or volume.

So did the mirror neuron system, a set of brain regions previously shown to become engaged when a person watches someone doing an activity the observer knows how to do — dancers watching videos of dance, for example. But in Dr. Large’s study, mirror neuron regions flashed even in nonmusicians.

Maybe those regions, which include some language areas, are “tapping into empathy,” he said, “as though you’re feeling an emotion that is being conveyed by a performer on stage,” and the brain is mirroring those emotions.

Regions involved in motor activity, everything from knitting to sprinting, also lighted up with changes in timing and volume.

Anders Friberg, a music scientist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, found that the speed patterns of people’s natural movements — moving a hand from one place to another on a desk or jogging and slowing to stop — match tempo changes in music that listeners rate as most pleasing.

“We got the best-sounding music from the velocity curve of natural human gestures, compared to other curves of tempos not found in nature,” Dr. Friberg said. “These were quite subtle differences, and listeners were clearly distinguishing between them. And these were not expert listeners.”

The Levitin project found that musicians were more sensitive to changes in volume and timing than nonmusicians. That echoes research by Nina Kraus , a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, which showed that musicians are better at hearing sound against background noise, and that their brains expend less energy detecting emotion in babies’ cries.

Separately, the Levitin team found that children with autism essentially rated each nocturne rendition equally emotional, finding the original no more emotionally expressive than the mechanical version. But in other research, the team found that children with autism could label music as happy, sad or scary, suggesting, Dr. Levitin said, that “their recognition of musical emotions may be intact without necessarily having those emotions evoked, and without them necessarily experiencing those emotions themselves.”

A Matter of Time

The ability to keep time to music appears to be almost unique to humans — not counting Snowball the cockatoo, which dances in time to “Everybody,” by the Backstreet Boys, and became a YouTube sensation. Both the Levitin and the Large studies found that the timing of notes was more important than loudness or softness in people’s perceptions of emotion in music.

This may be a product of evolutionary adaptation, said Dr. Kraus, since “a nervous system that is sensitive and well tuned to timing differences would be a nervous system that, from an evolutionary standpoint, would be more likely to escape potential enemies, survive and make babies.”

Changes in the expected timing of a note might generate the emotional equivalent of “depth perception, where slightly different images going to your two eyes allows you to see depth,” said Joseph E. LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University.

And musical timing might relate to the importance of timing in speech. “The difference between a B and a P, for example, is a difference in the timing involved in producing the sound,” said Aniruddh D. Patel, a music scientist at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego. “We don’t signal the difference between P and B by how loud it is.”

Michael Leonhart, who played trumpet and produced for Steely Dan, said he thought “the ears of most people have started to become less sensitive to dynamics” as music recordings crank up the volume and “the world has become a louder place.”

Subtle timing differences, on the other hand, are critical, Mr. Leonhart said, citing a triplet figure in the beginning of Steely Dan’s song “Josie.”

“The tendency is to start rushing it, to get excited,” Mr. Leonhart said. But the key is “to lay it back, don’t rush, make sure it’s not ahead of the snare drum. It changes the slingshot effect of where things snap and pop.”

Mr. Simon plays with timing constantly, surfing bar lines. He squeezes lyrics like “cinematographer” — six short notes — into the space of a two-syllable word, and will “land on a long word with a consonant at the end, so that you really hear the word,” he said. “My brain is working that way — it’s dividing up everything. I really have a certain sense of where the pocket of the groove is, and I know when you have to reinforce it and I know when you want to leave it.”

Musicians like Mr. Simon consider slight timing variations so crucial that they eschew the drum machines commonly used in recordings. Dr. Levitin says Stevie Wonder uses a drum machine because it has so many percussion voices, but inserts human-inflected alterations, essentially mistakes, so beats do not always line up perfectly.

And Geoff Emerick, a recording engineer for the Beatles, said: “Often when we were recording some of those Beatles rhythm tracks, there might be an error incorporated, and you would say, ‘That error sounds rather good,’ and we would actually elaborate on that.

“When everything is perfectly in time, the ear or mind tends to ignore it, much like a clock ticking in your bedroom — after a while you don’t hear it.”

Unknown, Maybe Unknowable

Of course, science has not figured out how to measure other elements of musical expression, including tone, timbre, harmonics and how audience interaction changes what musicians do. While there may be some consensus about what makes music expressive, performers say it is hardly immutable.

“Every day I’m a slightly different person,” Mr. Ma said. “The instrument, which is sensitive to weather and humidity changes, will act differently. There’s nothing worse than playing a really a great concert and the next day saying, ‘I’m going to do exactly the same thing.’ It always falls flat.”

Ms. Cash, who on a recent road trip listened to multiple versions of Chopin nocturnes and quizzed herself on which pianist she preferred, learned a lot about musical flexibility after developing polyps on her vocal cords in 1998.

“Because of these little polyps I’ve had to learn how to resing some of our songs, use breath where I used to use force, use force where I used to go delicate,” she said.

“The World Unseen,” on her album “Black Cadillac,” “gained some curves and some sweetness that I didn’t realize was there,” she said. “We recorded that really late at night, a live track, and it wasn’t that good of a vocal. The producer said he wanted to get a better vocal so we did it a few more times, but we kept going back to that live version. I keep it in a certain part of my voice. If I do it too breathy it sounds cloying. If I hit it too hard, it sounds like rock.”

But thinking things through goes only so far. For one melody, Mr. Simon started out using the words “going home,” he said. “But I said I’m not going to write ‘going home.’ Nothing interesting about that,” he said. “Then I stumbled on this word, ‘Kodachrome,’ which of course, had no meaning.”

In Dr. Levitin’s lab, Mr. McFerrin gamely tried several experiments, including seeing how long he could hold his hand in ice water while listening to different types of music (an effort to find out if music can ameliorate pain). He described a story by Hermann Hesse in which a violinist, granted his wish to be the best musician he can be, vanishes as soon as he starts to play.

“He completely disappears into the music,” Mr. McFerrin says on the video. “And I think that’s actually a big key to a successful creative moment for me, is when I disappear, and maybe the audience disappears into the music and becomes so engaged in the music that you forget that you’re even there.”

As Ms. Cash put it: “Some things you can break down, and some things are ineffable. Some things are just part of that mystery where all creative energy comes from. It’s part of the soul. Music is an ever-moving blob of mercury.”

 

The New York Times, April 17, 2011, by James Vlahos  —  DR. LEVINE’S MAGIC UNDERWEAR resembled bicycle shorts, black and skintight, but with sensors mounted on the thighs and wires running to a fanny pack. The look was part Euro tourist, part cyborg. Twice a second, 24 hours a day, the magic underwear’s accelerometers and inclinometers would assess every movement I made, however small, and whether I was lying, walking, standing or sitting.

 

James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has an intense interest in how much people move — and how much they don’t. He is a leader of an emerging field that some call inactivity studies, which has challenged long-held beliefs about human health and obesity. To help me understand some of the key findings, he suggested that I become a mock research trial participant. First my body fat was measured inside a white, futuristic capsule called a Bod Pod. Next, one of Dr. Levine’s colleagues, Shelly McCrady-Spitzer, placed a hooded mask over my head to measure the content of my exhalations and gauge my body’s calorie-burning rate. After that, I donned the magic underwear, then went down the hall to the laboratory’s research kitchen for a breakfast whose calories were measured precisely.

A weakness of traditional activity and obesity research is that it relies on self-reporting — people’s flawed recollections of how much they ate or exercised. But the participants in a series of studies that Dr. Levine did beginning in 2005 were assessed and wired up the way I was; they consumed all of their food in the lab for two months and were told not to exercise. With nary a snack nor workout left to chance, Dr. Levine was able to plumb the mysteries of a closed metabolic universe in which every calorie, consumed as food or expended for energy, could be accounted for.

His initial question — which he first posed in a 1999 study — was simple: Why do some people who consume the same amount of food as others gain more weight? After assessing how much food each of his subjects needed to maintain their current weight, Dr. Levine then began to ply them with an extra 1,000 calories per day. Sure enough, some of his subjects packed on the pounds, while others gained little to no weight.

“We measured everything, thinking we were going to find some magic metabolic factor that would explain why some people didn’t gain weight,” explains Dr. Michael Jensen, a Mayo Clinic researcher who collaborated with Dr. Levine on the studies. But that wasn’t the case. Then six years later, with the help of the motion-tracking underwear, they discovered the answer. “The people who didn’t gain weight were unconsciously moving around more,” Dr. Jensen says. They hadn’t started exercising more — that was prohibited by the study. Their bodies simply responded naturally by making more little movements than they had before the overfeeding began, like taking the stairs, trotting down the hall to the office water cooler, bustling about with chores at home or simply fidgeting. On average, the subjects who gained weight sat two hours more per day than those who hadn’t.

People don’t need the experts to tell them that sitting around too much could give them a sore back or a spare tire. The conventional wisdom, though, is that if you watch your diet and get aerobic exercise at least a few times a week, you’ll effectively offset your sedentary time. A growing body of inactivity research, however, suggests that this advice makes scarcely more sense than the notion that you could counter a pack-a-day smoking habit by jogging. “Exercise is not a perfect antidote for sitting,” says Marc Hamilton, an inactivity researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

The posture of sitting itself probably isn’t worse than any other type of daytime physical inactivity, like lying on the couch watching “Wheel of Fortune.” But for most of us, when we’re awake and not moving, we’re sitting. This is your body on chairs: Electrical activity in the muscles drops — “the muscles go as silent as those of a dead horse,” Hamilton says — leading to a cascade of harmful metabolic effects. Your calorie-burning rate immediately plunges to about one per minute, a third of what it would be if you got up and walked. Insulin effectiveness drops within a single day, and the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes rises. So does the risk of being obese. The enzymes responsible for breaking down lipids and triglycerides — for “vacuuming up fat out of the bloodstream,” as Hamilton puts it — plunge, which in turn causes the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol to fall.

Hamilton’s most recent work has examined how rapidly inactivity can cause harm. In studies of rats who were forced to be inactive, for example, he discovered that the leg muscles responsible for standing almost immediately lost more than 75 percent of their ability to remove harmful lipo-proteins from the blood. To show that the ill effects of sitting could have a rapid onset in humans too, Hamilton recruited 14 young, fit and thin volunteers and recorded a 40 percent reduction in insulin’s ability to uptake glucose in the subjects — after 24 hours of being sedentary.

Over a lifetime, the unhealthful effects of sitting add up. Alpa Patel, an epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society, tracked the health of 123,000 Americans between 1992 and 2006. The men in the study who spent six hours or more per day of their leisure time sitting had an overall death rate that was about 20 percent higher than the men who sat for three hours or less. The death rate for women who sat for more than six hours a day was about 40 percent higher. Patel estimates that on average, people who sit too much shave a few years off of their lives.

Another study, published last year in the journal Circulation, looked at nearly 9,000 Australians and found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent. The study author David Dunstan wanted to analyze whether the people who sat watching television had other unhealthful habits that caused them to die sooner. But after crunching the numbers, he reported that “age, sex, education, smoking, hypertension, waist circumference, body-mass index, glucose tolerance status and leisure-time exercise did not significantly modify the associations between television viewing and all-cause . . . mortality.”

Sitting, it would seem, is an independent pathology. Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterward or hit the gym. It is bad whether you are morbidly obese or marathon-runner thin. “Excessive sitting,” Dr. Levine says, “is a lethal activity.”

The good news is that inactivity’s peril can be countered. Working late one night at 3 a.m., Dr. Levine coined a name for the concept of reaping major benefits through thousands of minor movements each day: NEAT, which stands for Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. In the world of NEAT, even the littlest stuff matters. McCrady-Spitzer showed me a chart that tracked my calorie-burning rate with zigzagging lines, like those of a seismograph. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing to one of the spikes, which indicated that the rate had shot up. “That’s when you bent over to tie your shoes,” she said. “It took your body more energy than just sitting still.”

In a motion-tracking study, Dr. Levine found that obese subjects averaged only 1,500 daily movements and nearly 600 minutes sitting. In my trial with the magic underwear, I came out looking somewhat better — 2,234 individual movements and 367 minutes sitting. But I was still nowhere near the farm workers Dr. Levine has studied in Jamaica, who average 5,000 daily movements and only 300 minutes sitting.

Dr. Levine knows that we can’t all be farmers, so instead he is exploring ways for people to redesign their environments so that they encourage more movement. We visited a chairless first-grade classroom where the students spent part of each day crawling along mats labeled with vocabulary words and jumping between platforms while reciting math problems. We stopped by a human-resources staffing agency where many of the employees worked on the move at treadmill desks — a creation of Dr. Levine’s, later sold by a company called Steelcase.

Dr. Levine was in a philosophical mood as we left the temp agency. For all of the hard science against sitting, he admits that his campaign against what he calls “the chair-based lifestyle” is not limited to simply a quest for better physical health. His is a war against inertia itself, which he believes sickens more than just our body. “Go into cubeland in a tightly controlled corporate environment and you immediately sense that there is a malaise about being tied behind a computer screen seated all day,” he said. “The soul of the nation is sapped, and now it’s time for the soul of the nation to rise.”

James Vlahos (jamesvlahos@gmail.com) writes often for Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. Editor: Ilena Silverman (i.silverman-MagGroup@nytimes.com).

 

 

 

 

 


Jonathan De Villiers for The New York Time

 

 

 

The New York Times, April 18, 2011, by Gretchen Reynolds  —  Let’s consider the butterfly. One of the most taxing movements in sports, the butterfly requires greater energy than bicycling at 14 miles per hour, running a 10-minute mile, playing competitive basketball or carrying furniture upstairs. It burns more calories, demands larger doses of oxygen and elicits more fatigue than those other activities, meaning that over time it should increase a swimmer’s endurance and contribute to weight control.

 

 

So is the butterfly the best single exercise that there is? Well, no. The butterfly “would probably get my vote for the worst” exercise, said Greg Whyte, a professor of sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University in England and a past Olympian in the modern pentathlon, known for his swimming. The butterfly, he said, is “miserable, isolating, painful.” It requires a coach, a pool and ideally supplemental weight and flexibility training to reduce the high risk of injury.

Ask a dozen physiologists which exercise is best, and you’ll get a dozen wildly divergent replies. “Trying to choose” a single best exercise is “like trying to condense the entire field” of exercise science, said Martin Gibala, the chairman of the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

But when pressed, he suggested one of the foundations of old-fashioned calisthenics: the burpee, in which you drop to the ground, kick your feet out behind you, pull your feet back in and leap up as high as you can. “It builds muscles. It builds endurance.” He paused. “But it’s hard to imagine most people enjoying” an all-burpees program, “or sticking with it for long.”

And sticking with an exercise is key, even if you don’t spend a lot of time working out. The health benefits of activity follow a breathtakingly steep curve. “The majority of the mortality-related benefits” from exercising are due to the first 30 minutes of exercise, said Timothy Church, M.D., who holds the John S. McIlhenny endowed chair in health wisdom at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La. A recent meta-analysis of studies about exercise and mortality showed that, in general, a sedentary person’s risk of dying prematurely from any cause plummeted by nearly 20 percent if he or she began brisk walking (or the equivalent) for 30 minutes five times a week. If he or she tripled that amount, for instance, to 90 minutes of exercise four or five times a week, his or her risk of premature death dropped by only another 4 percent. So the one indisputable aspect of the single best exercise is that it be sustainable. From there, though, the debate grows heated.

 

 

 

ENERGY WELL SPENT In METs (metabolic equivalent to task), a measure of energy exerted for a given activity

 

 

 

“I personally think that brisk walking is far and away the single best exercise,” said Michael Joyner, M.D., a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a leading researcher in the field of endurance exercise.

As proof, he points to the work of Hiroshi Nose, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of sports medical sciences at Shinshu University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan, who has enrolled thousands of older Japanese citizens in an innovative, five-month-long program of brisk, interval-style walking (three minutes of fast walking, followed by three minutes of slower walking, repeated 10 times). The results have been striking. “Physical fitness — maximal aerobic power and thigh muscle strength — increased by about 20 percent,” Dr. Nose wrote in an e-mail, “which is sure to make you feel about 10 years younger than before training.” The walkers’ “symptoms of lifestyle-related diseases (hypertension, hyperglycemia and obesity) decreased by about 20 percent,” he added, while their depression scores dropped by half.

Walking has also been shown by other researchers to aid materially in weight control. A 15-year study found that middle-aged women who walked for at least an hour a day maintained their weight over the decades. Those who didn’t gained weight. In addition, a recent seminal study found that when older people started a regular program of brisk walking, the volume of their hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in memory, increased significantly.

But let’s face it, walking holds little appeal — or physiological benefit — for anyone who already exercises. “I nominate the squat,” said Stuart Phillips, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University and an expert on the effects of resistance training on the human body. The squat “activates the body’s biggest muscles, those in the buttocks, back and legs.” It’s simple. “Just fold your arms across your chest,” he said, “bend your knees and lower your trunk until your thighs are about parallel with the floor. Do that 25 times. It’s a very potent exercise.” Use a barbell once the body-weight squats grow easy.

The squat, and weight training in general, are particularly good at combating sarcopenia, he said, or the inevitable and debilitating loss of muscle mass that accompanies advancing age. “Each of us is experiencing sarcopenia right this minute,” he said. “We just don’t realize it.” Endurance exercise, he added, unlike resistance training, does little to slow the condition.

Resistance training is good for weight control, as well. In studies conducted by other researchers, a regimen of simple weight training by sedentary men and women led to a significant decrease in waist circumference and abdominal fat. It also has been found to lower the risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Counterintuitively, weight training may even improve cardiovascular fitness, Phillips said, as measured by changes in a person’s VO2max, or the maximum amount of oxygen that the heart and lungs can deliver to the muscles. Most physiologists believe that only endurance-exercise training can raise someone’s VO2max. But in small experiments, he said, weight training, by itself, effectively increased cardiovascular fitness.

“I used to run marathons,” he said. Now he mostly weight-trains, “and I’m in better shape.”

But there’s something undignified and boring about a squats-only routine. And the science supporting weight training as an all-purpose exercise approach, while provocative, remains inconclusive. Is there a single activity that has proved to be, at once, more strenuous than walking while building power like the squat?

“I think, actually, that you can make a strong case for H.I.T.,” Gibala said. High-intensity interval training, or H.I.T. as it’s familiarly known among physiologists, is essentially all-interval exercise. As studied in Gibala’s lab, it involves grunting through a series of short, strenuous intervals on specialized stationary bicycles, known as Wingate ergometers. In his first experiments, riders completed 30 seconds of cycling at the highest intensity the riders could stand. After resting for four minutes, the volunteers repeated the interval several times, for a total of two to three minutes of extremely intense exercise. After two weeks, the H.I.T. riders, with less than 20 minutes of hard effort behind them, had increased their aerobic capacity as much as riders who had pedaled leisurely for more than 10 hours. Other researchers also have found that H.I.T. reduces blood-sugar levels and diabetes risk, and Gibala anticipates that it will aid in weight control, although he hasn’t studied that topic fully yet.

The approach seems promising, since most of us have minimal time to exercise each week. Gibala last month published a new study of H.I.T., requiring only a stationary bicycle and some degree of grit. In this modified version, you sprint for 60 seconds at a pace that feels unpleasant but sustainable, followed by 60 seconds of pedaling easily, then another 60-second sprint and recovery, 10 times in all. “There’s no particular reason why” H.I.T. shouldn’t be adaptable to almost any sport, Gibala said, as long as you adequately push yourself.

Of course, to be effective, H.I.T. must hurt. But a study published last month found that when a group of recreational runners practiced H.I.T. on the track, they enjoyed the workout more than a second group of runners who jogged continuously for 50 minutes. The H.I.T. runners, the study’s authors suspect, were less bored.

The only glaring inadequacy of H.I.T. is that it builds muscular strength less effectively than, say, the squat. But even that can be partially remedied, Gibala said: “Sprinting up stairs is a power workout and interval session simultaneously.”Meaning that running up steps just might be the single best exercise of all. Great news for those of us who could never master the butterfly.

http://www.treaddesk.com/

TreadDesk Video

 
 

 

Treadmill Desks by TreadDesk

Do you get tired of sitting in a chair all day? The TreadDesk can change all of that by letting you stand up and walk while you continue working at your desk.

Over the past fifty years, we have been designing and engineering movement right out of our lives through improvements in technology and manufacturing. Much of today’s workforce is sedentary and needs to get up and moving again. The TreadDesk has been designed and engineered to put that much needed movement back into our workday by providing office workers with the opportunity to change their working position from sitting to standing up and walking while still being productive at their desk.

By walking at a slow pace of only 1-2 mph, most TreadDesk users can type, write and talk on the phone just as well as they can when sitting. The benefits of changing your working position throughout the day from sitting to standing up and walking are far reaching in both the physical and mental aspects of TreadDesk users.

The most obvious benefit is that while walking you will burn more calories which will lead to weight loss. However, the less obvious benefits are on the mental side. Once you stand up and start moving, your brain will operate at a much higher level as blood flow increases, making it easier to focus, increasing productivity, alertness and creativity.