Running With Scissors

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This just in from the Union of Confusing Scientists: if you want to live a long life, you'd better get moving.

Run for Your Life

A recently-published study conducted by researchers at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland found that only vigorous exercise - running, swimming, racket sports, and the like - helps lower the risk of early death from heart disease. Their conclusion contradicts the results of previous studies, some of which found that even mild forms of exercise such as walking or golfing were beneficial and that strenuous exercise provided no additional benefit whatever.

Well, of course. 'A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds', or something like that. In the United States, where dying is considered optional, we take such studies to heart1 and it's too bad we can't draw any useful conclusions from them. I'm reminded of the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant: too many tantalising hints, too few glimpses of the big picture.

Fitness Tips from the Animal Kingdom

Prey animals seldom have a problem with their cardiovascular health, if you disregard their dropping dead of heart failure when cornered. First, they don't live long enough. Second, they spend most of their short lives trying to avoid becoming an item on someone else's menu.

Take, for example, the African warthog. This animal looks like somebody crossed a pig with a rhinoceros and then beat on it with the ugly stick. He has a disproportionately large head and wart-like protuberances just below the eyes and between the eyes and the tusks. Males also sport a very small pair of warts near the jaw. His face is flat with an elongated snout. Eyes set high on the head allow him to watch for predators even when he lowers his head to feed on short grass.

You and I may find him unappetising, but he's fast food to the lions and leopards of Africa. The warthog's burrow functions as a McDonald's of sorts for the local predators, so the warthog has developed a unique strategy for getting out the door in the morning: he literally hits the ground running. He bolts from his burrow as fast as his feet can carry him, taking any prowling lions by surprise. Thus he avoids becoming a McWarthogger and lives long enough to find his own Happy Meal somewhere.

Some naturalists have noted that 'a warthog can run at speeds of up to 30 miles (50 kilometers) per hour, and it displays an awesome amount of courage and determination when confronted with some of the most dangerous animals on the planet.' Well, no kidding. The poor thing hasn't many options. A lot of people could muster surprising bursts of speed when confronted by hungry lions. I know I could.

At the other end of the food chain you have the big cats. The life of a lion is divided between long hours of lyin'2 around sleeping and short periods of hunting and mating. The fact is, lions can be found resting, sleeping, or sitting an incredible 20 hours a day. The male lion has perfected the art of the laze. The females do 90% of the hunting; he just shows up when dinner's ready and generally gets the lion's share3 of the meal. I bet if you handed him the TV remote, he'd know what to do with it.

And five demerits to the person in the back of the room who is humming 'The Circle of Life'.

Obviously there is no more agreement in the animal kingdom about proper fitness techniques than we find among our estimable medical researchers. Predator and prey lead very different lives up until the eventful moment when they meet, yet both are lean and fit. So what's a human to conclude from this?

The Best Medicine

The lightbulb joke in its many forms

One thing just about everybody agrees on is that laughter is good for you. Research conducted in the United States suggests that laughing and having a good sense of humour can protect against heart disease. A recent study (you knew there'd be a study) by doctors at the University of Maryland has found that people who fail to muster a smile in stressful or uncomfortable situations may be more likely to develop heart problems. The authors of the study suggest that a daily dose of laughter - watching a funny video for instance - should be recommended by doctors along with exercise and a low-fat diet as a way of staying healthy.

'We don't know yet why laughing protects the heart but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our blood vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack.'

It probably won't surprise you to learn that someone has come up with the concept of Laughter Clubs. The
Laughter Club International was founded by Dr Madan Kataria in Mumbai, India in the mid-1990's and the idea quickly spread around the world. It also won't surprise you to know that scientists (them again) have determined that laughing gives you a decent cardiovascular workout. It relaxes muscles, expands blood vessels and sends more blood to the extremities and other muscles all over the body. A good bout of laughter also reduces the levels of stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol. If you are ailing, it improves your immune function and speed of healing, reduces pain, and improves the quality of your life.

I am sitting in front of my computer grinning on this first Sunday in May, which coincidentally is World Laughter Day. They say that man is the only animal that laughs. I'm not so sure I believe it - man's previous claims to fame as The Only Animal with Language and The Only Animal that Makes Tools have been discredited, so I expect any day we'll find another laughing animal. (No, not the hyena. And whoever is whistling 'Hakuna Matata', stop it.)

But until then perhaps we should call our species Homo ridens. We are frequently unwise, and our ability to laugh at ourselves is one of our more-endearing qualities. So the next time you read up on the latest medical research, have a good belly laugh instead. You'll feel better. So what if you feel silly - nothing much has ever been accomplished in the name of dignity.

Ride si sapis: Laugh if you are wise.

Running With Scissors


08.05.03 Front Page

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