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The Perfect Push Up

The Perfect Push Up Exercise Gimmick Although push-ups are the most rudimentary exercise in existence, multiple companies have produced ridiculous gimmicks to help you do the Perfect Push-up!

Research Blogging Award Finalist!

Research Blogging Awards 2010 Finalist Obesity Panacea has been named a Finalist for the 2010 Research Blogging Awards! You can see all the nominees by clicking on the link below.

Keeping fit and healthy into your 90's!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009 Author: Peter Janiszewski, PhD 0 Responses
Boleslaw Kluczny, 92, exercising in Czestochowa, Poland.

When it comes to defining the earliest personal inspiration for a physically active lifestyle, the sight of my beloved grandfather doing his regular morning exercises/stretches with utmost zest definitely stands out. I must have been at most 6 years old at this point, still living in Czestochowa, Poland, and I remember being so intrigued by my grandfather’s peculiar behavior that I would often join him in the process. In fact, my very first cycling accident (yes, I have accumulated a few over the years) was while riding around the promenade near my grandparent’s home, while under my grandfather’s supervision (he was on his regular walk). I decided to ride down a steep gravel hill (not too long after I learned to ride without training wheels) and due to a unavoidable depression in the gravel, I did a Superman over my handlebars, resulting in many cuts, and a missing tooth. But I digress…

Thinking back, it amazes me that more than 20 years ago, when the concepts of fitness and exercising were fairly esoteric and exclusive to hard-core athletes in the west and non-existent in communist-era Poland, my grandfather had already figured it out – exercise was an important method of keeping you strong and healthy into your late years. If you have any hesitations about my claims, please refer to the above photo (recently taken in Poland by one of my aunts specifically for this blog post) of Boleslaw Kluczny, my dziadzius (grandpa), at the young age of 92 exercising on his recently purchased “exercise machine”, as he calls it. Not having seen my grandfather face-to-face for about a decade, I must have spent a good 30 minutes just staring at this photo.

From recent anecdotes I get indirectly through conversations with my mother, my dziadzius can out-walk my middle-aged aunts around that same promenade at which I lost my tooth over 20 years ago. In fact, my aunts have to take shifts, such that one aunt will walk for a given period of time, get tired, and then be replaced by another aunt to keep my dziadzius company during his extended walks. What’s more important, since the passing of my babcia (grandma), dziadzius has been able to go shopping (on foot), cook, and clean all by himself. Additionally, all his mental faculties are at peak performance – I definitely get the dry humour and the laughing fits from him.

While all this anecdotal evidence may be interesting, the notion that exercise is particularly important among the older demographic was well portrayed in a recent study published by our lab, the results of which I had discussed in detail before. Briefly, the study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine earlier this year, demonstrated that seniors who performed a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise saw tremendous improvements in their ability to perform physical tasks as well as their ability to metabolize sugar - improvements that occurred in concert with reductions in fat mass and increases in muscle mass.

So there you have it – take it from my dziadzius – exercise now and you will be fit and healthy into your 90’s!

Dzienkuje dziadziusiu za inspiracje do aktywnego zycia. Do dzisiaj pamietam dziadziusia ranne cwiczenia.

Special thanks to my dziadzius for posing for the photo, my aunt Grazyna for taking the photo, presumably my uncle Janusz for emailing the photo to my parents, and finally my mom and dad who in collaboration finally emailed me the photo – it was a family effort!


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Ottawa Farmers' Market Under Attack

Sunday, September 27, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 2 Responses

Photo by NatalieMaynor.

It has become accepted wisdom that refined foods are a major cause of the current obesity epidemic.  Just as bad, last week the Centre for Science in the Public Interest released a report claiming that the excess salt in processed foods "likely kills more Canadians every year than any other chemical substance".  Refined foods are the antithesis of a healthy diet, and yet they make up the vast majority of the products found in most grocery stores.  In contrast, farmers' markets offer a great opportunity to purchase the unrefined, nutritious foods that are critical to a healthy diet.  

I am a big fan of farmers' markets. They are an excellent way to get delicious, unrefined, fresh fruits and vegetables, not to mention local meat (both wild and farmed), baking, flowers, crafts, honey, and local entertainment (growing up in Fredericton I performed as a professional juggler at the Boyce Farmers' Market from the age of 12 until my first year of university, and I moonlighted at the Jemseg Market for a couple summers as well).  I currently live in Ottawa, which is having a renaissance when it comes to farmers' markets, with local markets now operating in Vanier, Old Ottawa East, Parkdale and throughout suburbs like Carp and Gatineau as well (I don't really count Byward Market which is far more touristy, although it has fresh produce as well).  Given Ottawa's apparent love for farmers' markets, I was shocked to hear that a new development may halve the size of the original Ottawa Farmers' Market - the most prominent farmers' market in the Ottawa region. 

The current Ottawa Farmers' Market is located at Lansdowne Park, which is sandwiched between the Rideau Canal (a UNESCO world heritage site) and Bank Street, a major shopping district. The City of Ottawa has recently decided to embark on a public-private partnership to redevelop the park, in a move which would dramatically reduce the size of the current market, as well as most of the green space on the site, which will be replaced by 400,000 square feet of commercial space.  Fans of the market are worried that it will be crushed by the new development, the vibrant local business community on Bank Street is worried that they will be run into the ground by the new box stores, and others worry about everything from insufficient parking and transit access to the whopping $100+ million that the city is pumping into the project without any clear explanation of how the redevelopment will benefit the people of Ottawa.  It's not just the foodies and the businessmen protecting their own interests who are upset - the head of the Carleton University MBA program has said that "If I was evaluating this as a business loan proposal, as a banker, I would reject it out of hand...".

Now this redevelopment could be a really great idea for the people of Ottawa, but so far that doesn't seem to be the case.  The development plan did not go through a transparent, competitive bidding process, which means that people really don't know much about the plan at all, or what impact it will have on the Ottawa Farmers' Market. Luckily, there are public consultations taking place over the next few days, which will help to determine whether or not this plan goes forward.

The consultations are:

Monday, September 28, 6 to 9 p.m.
Lansdowne Park, Salon A
1015 Bank Street

Tuesday, September 29, 6 to 9 p.m.
Ron Maslin Playhouse, Lobby
1 Ron Maslin Way, Kanata

Wednesday, September 30, 6 to 9 p.m.
Ottawa City Hall, Jean Pigott Place
110 Laurier Avenue West

Thursday, October 1, 6 to 9 p.m.
Jim Durrell Complex, Elwood Hall
1265 Walkley Road

Monday, October 5, 6 to 9 p.m.
Tom Brown Arena, Hall
141 Bayview Road

Tuesday, October 6, 6 to 9 p.m.
Shenkman Arts Centre, Lower Lobby
245 Centrum Boulevard, Orléans

If the City of Ottawa recognizes the importance of fresh produce to a healthy diet, let's hope that any plans for Lansdowne Park improve, rather than dismantle the Ottawa Farmers' Market. I urge all of our readers in the Ottawa region to attend one of the public consultations, or complete an e-consultation on the City of Ottawa website here.  Or, feel free to email your councilor (or the mayor if you live outside of Ottawa) to let them know that you feel that farmers markets are critical to the nutrition of our National Capital.  Contact information for all members of City Council can be found here.  For more information on the proposed redevelopment, please visit the Friends of Lansdowne Park website here.

For more information on farmers' markets and their role in a healthy diet, please visit Darya Pino's Summer Tomato blog here.


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The psychological impact of adolescent obesity

Friday, September 25, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 1 Response

Image by d.billy.

The idea that adolescent obesity may provide a significant psychological burden is not terribly surprising. Adolescence is difficult under ideal circumstances, the physical stress and social discrimination that often accompany obesity could only be expected to exacerbate this situation (the ridiculously discriminatory advertisement at the top of this post may not be tolerable in today's society, but weight discrimination continues to increase in prevalence, with some arguing that it is now on par with racial discrimination in North America). The latest issue of the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity contains two papers examining this important topic - one by Helena Fonseca and colleagues which examines the psychosocial characteristics of lean, overweight, and obese adolescents, while another by Nicole Quinlan examines psychosocial changes following a weight loss intervention.  I don't think I could do both studies justice if I combined them into one post, so I will discuss Dr Fonseca's study today, and discuss Dr Quinlan's study next week.

In this new study, Dr Fonseca and colleagues aimed to identify psychosocial and lifestyle behaviors which distinguish overweight and obese teens from their lean peers.  The study included 6131 students aged 11-16 who completed questionnaires on their body weight, body image, diet history, life satisfaction, health perception, peer group involvement, happiness, irritability and alcohol use. The results are not surprising.  For starters, they report that overweight and obese individuals were more likely to perceive others as making less positive, and more negative comments about them. Further, overweight and obese teens found it more difficult to become involved with their peer group, were more likely to report being unhappy, and more likely to report abusing alcohol. These differences were of a considerable magnitude - 5.3% of obese teens reported being drunk more than 10 times, compared to just 2.4% in the lean group, while the percentage of individuals reporting that they felt irritable on a daily basis in the obese and lean groups were 12.5 and 5.2% respectively.

These results are obviously distressing, but they drive home the message that pediatric obesity is associated with serious psychosocial issues which require appropriate intervention.  The authors call for increased attention to the psychological needs of overweight and obese youth, and those concerns seem warranted. On a positive note, as I alluded to earlier, other research in this same issue of IJPO suggests that comprehensive weight loss programs may help alleviate psychosocial problems - but that is a topic for next week.  Until then, have a great weekend!


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Fonseca, H., Matos, M., Guerra, A., & Gomes Pedro, J. (2009). Are overweight and obese adolescents different from their peers? International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, 4 (3), 166-174 DOI: 10.1080/17477160802464495

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Power Balls: the exercise regimen anyone can get their hands on!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009 Author: Peter Janiszewski, PhD 5 Responses

You may remember my recent discussion of the Shake Weight , the 2.5 lb vibrating phallus, which is quickly becoming the North American fitness sensation (sort of…). If you have purchased the Shake Weight, you’ve undoubtedly seen phenomenal fitness improvements and more importantly super-fast weight loss.

But wait! There’s more!

To supplement your regular vibrating phallus fitness routine, you can also purchase a set of Power Balls, for a more complete, full body workout!

A vibrator and a set of power balls is an exercise regimen everyone can get their hands on – men, women; young and old!

What is a Power Ball, you ask?

According to the manufacturers,

“Powerball is a revolutionary new Gyroscope which literally explodes with mind numbing inertial forces once you activate its internal rotor!”

Wait, what?

In simplest form, the Power Ball is a tennis ball sized sphere containing a flywheel which revolves freely inside the sphere.

Apparently, “the unique sphere successfully blurs the line between exercise & fun and is suitable for both male and female, young or old.”

Imagine that – exercise that is also fun!

The Power Ball “will make even the fittest and strongest people on the planet burn because it is hitting muscles in the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders and chest that you simply won't have used before with conventional forms of exercise.”

Thus, ensure to always have a fire extinguisher present when exercising with Power Ball, just in case you also start to “burn”.

Also, can you imagine exercise that may target your arms, shoulders, and chest!?

There is literally not one form of exercise in existence that uses these specific muscle groups! Well, aside from bench press, bicep curls, triceps extensions, shoulder press, tennis, squash, badminton, baseball, cricket, rowing, elliptical machine, chest dips, lateral raises, shoulder shrugs, clean and press, pushups, etc.

Further, as per the Power Ball website,

“Most NSD Powerball models have a built in digital speed meter which measures the number of revolutions per minute made during each spin. This translates into a whole pile of fun if you happen to plant one down in front of a group of guys or girls, each of which will be magnetically drawn to bettering their own last score, or that of their friends, even when they feel their arm is about to fall off!”

In other words, due to the magical magnetic properties of Power Ball, anyone with embedded metal objects should remain at least 10 meters away.

Also, if your arm does fall off while you are in a state of delirium playing with your Power Balls, please seek medical attention immediately.

While the statement above indicates that your arms may “fall off” while using the Power Ball, do not worry about potential injuries – especially repetitive strain injuries that could result from vigorous Power Ball handling. In fact, the Power Ball can “rehabilitate sore or damaged limbs affected by Carpal Tunnel, repetitive strain injury or even Arthritis. NSD Powerball is totally non impact and will provide soothing therapeutic rehabilitation for many debilitating conditions.”

It is unknown whether they can also rehabilitate detached limbs caused by vigorous Power Balling.

And it can also improve sexual function and relieve acute bouts of diarrhea (no, I just added that for fun).

To learn more about the Power Ball, you can log onto the manufacturer’s website or you can watch a demonstrational video by clicking here .


Thanks to Obesity Panacea reader, Richard Eis for bringing this gadget to our attention.

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Car Free Day

Tuesday, September 22, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 0 Responses

Image by abundantc.

I know it's a bit late, but I just realized that today is officially Car Free Day.  Fifteen-hundred cities around the world, including Toronto and Montreal here in Canada, have barred cars from certain sections of their downtown in an effort to promote active transportation, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  In Montreal, the closed-down streets are being used for activities including skateboarding and inline skating (although anyone who has visited Montreal knows they don't need much of an excuse to close down major streets downtown - Ste Catherine Street seems to be closed to traffic at least a quarter of the summer).  Although I don't know of any specific Car Free Day events here in Ottawa, Bixi bike rental stands are distributed throughout downtown Ottawa and Gatineau, which allow you to rent bikes for an hourly rate using your credit card.  Bixi's are also available in Montreal, and are coming soon to other major cities including London and Boston, so consider renting a bike for those noon-hour errands no matter where you call home. 

Kudos to all the cities that are promoting active transportation today, and if you haven't left the house yet today, please consider using public transit, walking, cycling, roller blading, or any of the dozens of ways that you can commute that are better for you, and better for the environment.

Happy Car Free Day everyone!


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The Neckline Slimmer - Resistance Training for your Neck?

Monday, September 21, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 2 Responses

Did you know that you can firm, smooth, and lift your entire neckline in just two minutes a day?  Neither did I, until I came across the Neckline Slimmer, a resistance training device for your neck.  The device was invented by Paul Younane, an Australian physiotherapist and former professional rugby player.  According to the official Neckline Slimmer blog,

The Neckline Slimmer targets and tones the underlying muscles of your neck, chin and cheek area by applying gentle resistance. Just like every other muscle in your body – whether it be your abs, butt or thighs – your facial muscles need exercise. We all know the benefits of resistance exercises like crunches and curls. Think of the Neckline Slimmer in exactly the same way, only easier.

 For a video of the Neckline Slimmer in action, click on the video below (email subscribers can see the video on our main page by clicking here).

As you might expect, there are quite a few problems with the rationale behind this device.  First of all, the primary cause of a double-chin is not loose muscles, it is an accumulation of fat.  And as Dr Jen Kuk told us in her recent interview regarding regional fat loss,

"...there is no way to target a specific fat depot..."

In other words, whether you want to lose fat from your belly, from your butt, or from your neck, the best course of action is to increase your caloric expenditure and reduce your caloric intake.  E.g. exercise more and eat less.  Doing thousands of crunches will not specifically burn the fat off your stomach, nor will doing neck exercises magically burn all the fat off your neck.   That's just not how the body works.  Not surprisingly, looking at the pictures on the Neckline Slimmer before and after page, it appears that several of the women may have lost a significant amount of weight, which could explain much of the reduction in neck size. 

But for me, the strangest thing about the Neckline Slimmer are its claims about skeletal muscle.  Let's look at the following passages from the official Neckline Slimmer blog (emphasis mine):

The Neckline Slimmer simply applies the principles of resistance training to the neck, chin and cheeks. As the underlying muscles firm and lift so does the skin. This is because the muscles of the neck and face are inextricably linked to the skin by connective tissue called facia [sic]...  Resistance training is the key to toning and shaping every muscle in your body. When muscles are toned they lift and hold their shape. This is because resistance training challenges your muscles so that more fibers in each muscle become active. It’’s [sic] like turning the volume control up on your muscles. Instead of volume, however, the muscle tone is what you increase. Then, even at rest, your muscle tone remains raised so you always keep your shape.

This seems to suggest that when muscles are out of shape they become incredibly saggy, and when they are exercised they become tight and toned.  Think of how saggy your neck and facial muscles would have to become to result in a double chin! When you actually think about it, that doesn't make much sense.  I am a distance runner, and I never train any muscles in my upper body.  My triceps are very weak, yet when I hold my arms out my triceps muscles do not dangle off the back of my arm.  Why not?  Because muscles do not dramatically lengthen as they lose fitness, nor do they shorten and become drastically "tighter" as a result of training (although they may tighten a bit, I can't imagine it would be enough to lift itself).  So when you train a muscle, it does not noticeably "lift and hold its shape" any more than it did before training. And if your neck muscles did tighten that dramatically as a result of training, they would exert a tremendous amount of force on your neck, pulling your chin down towards your chest and resulting in quite an uncomfortable situation.  Luckily for all of us, that is not the way that muscles work. 

Let's recap.  A double-chin is most likely to be caused by an accumulation of fat, not saggy muscles.  Since it is impossible to target one specific fat depot, the best way to reduce the size of any fat depot (including the neck) is to reduce caloric intake and increase caloric expenditure. 

I should mention that the Neckline Slimmer also comes with "accelerator cream", although how this cream accelerates the muscle "lifting and toning" is unclear.  If you are interested in purchasing a Neckline Slimmer for yourself, please visit their website here.  Hat tip to friend and reader Danielle Gabert for emailing us about the Neckline Slimmer.


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Skinny Legs a Risk for Cardiovascular Disease and Death (The Chicken Leg Syndrome)

Friday, September 18, 2009 Author: Peter Janiszewski, PhD 6 Responses

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIn prior posts, I have described the results of countless research, including my own studies which suggest that independent of how much you weigh – the location of that excess storage is a key determinant of your health risk. Indeed, over the last couple of years I have published 2 separate studies which show that regardless of your weight, having a big belly (being apple shaped) can increase your risk of type-2 diabetes (men and women) as well as erectile dysfunction among men (see all pertinent studies discussed in this post below).

Additionally, it has also been known that for a given size of your belly – the smaller your hips or thighs, the greater your risk of a number of diseases. Indeed, along with Drs. Jen Kuk and Bob Ross, I had previously shown in another study that for a given amount of belly fat, having more fat in the buttocks, hips, and thighs was actually associated with a healthier metabolic profile among both men and women.

All this evidence is often simplistically summed up as the difference between apple (android) or pear-shaped (gynoid) obesity, with the latter being largely benign.

A very recent study published in the British Medical Journal has investigated the influence of thigh circumference on prospective risk of cardiovascular disease and death, and the results are making quite a few headlines.

In the study, Heitmann and Frederiksen assessed longitudinal (over time) data on 1436 men and 1380 women looking for occurrence of cardiovascular disease and mortality.

Over the approximately 10 years of follow-up, 257 men and 155 women died while 263 men and 140 women developed cardiovascular disease.

The authors found that for a given body mass index (BMI) or waist circumference, men and women with smaller thighs had an increased risk of dying and of developing cardiovascular disease compared to those with larger thighs. However, there was a threshold for this effect, such that only people with thigh circumferences below approximately 60cm were at increased risk of dying. People with thigh circumferences higher than 60cm didn’t seem to get any additional benefit from having bigger thighs.

The explanation for why smaller thighs may predispose someone to a risk of cardiovascular disease or mortality is still up in the air. The two schools of thought suggest the problem lies in either not enough muscle mass or too little fat mass in the lower body. Indeed, as I briefly mentioned above, all else being equal, those with less lower body fat tend to be less healthy than those with more.

However, there is another plausible explanation for these findings, which the authors did not at all explore. A couple of years ago, Dr. Jen Kuk and I were interested in seeing what exactly a large hip or thigh circumference was predicting in reference to someone’s body composition, when other measures such as their BMI or waist circumference are also considered. In a study we published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, we showed that while a large hip or thigh predicts more lower body fat mass and muscle mass, it was also a predictor of LESS visceral fat – the fat inside your belly, that has been shown repeatedly to be the strongest predictor of health risk.

In other words, our results suggest that the risk of disease and death associated with a small thigh circumference in the recent study, can be explained by increased storage of the dangerous visceral fat. It would seem that if the body can't store your excess calories in the legs (where the health risk is minimal) it stores it in more dangerous depots, such as inside your belly, where the excess fat is more likely to cause trouble.

While I coudld literally go on for hours on this topic, I should quit my rambling there – it is dangerous when you get someone who works in an area of interest (body composition, in this case) to discuss their research – it may never end…

Have a great weekend,


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Heitmann, B., & Frederiksen, P. (2009). Thigh circumference and risk of heart disease and premature death: prospective cohort study BMJ, 339 (sep03 2) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.b3292

Janiszewski, P., Janssen, I., & Ross, R. (2007). Does Waist Circumference Predict Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease Beyond Commonly Evaluated Cardiometabolic Risk Factors? Diabetes Care, 30 (12), 3105-3109 DOI: 10.2337/dc07-0945

Janiszewski, P., Kuk, J., & Ross, R. (2008). Is the reduction of lower-body subcutaneous adipose tissue associated with elevations in risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease? Diabetologia, 51 (8), 1475-1482 DOI: 10.1007/s00125-008-1058-0

Kuk JL, Janiszewski PM, & Ross R (2007). Body mass index and hip and thigh circumferences are negatively associated with visceral adipose tissue after control for waist circumference. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 85 (6), 1540-4 PMID: 17556690

Janiszewski, P., Janssen, I., & Ross, R. (2009). Abdominal Obesity and Physical Inactivity Are Associated with Erectile Dysfunction Independent of Body Mass Index Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6 (7), 1990-1998 DOI: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01302.x

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Success! City of Ottawa reinstates "student" fare for mature students

Thursday, September 17, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 0 Responses
Photo by Steph & Adam
During the past few months, I have written several posts on the recent decision by Ottawa City Council to exclude students over the age of 27 from "student" transit passes.  The move upset a lot of people for a lot of reasons.  Aside from hurting students financially, I argued that reducing access to public transit could also influence physical activity levels of some students, since transit use and subsidized transit passes are associated with increased levels of physical activity.  Despite widespread criticism of the move, City Council appeared to be standing firm on their decision, as evidenced by a recent email from my City Councillor which included numerous reasons why he supported the move to restrict the "student" bus fare to those 27 and under.

Imagine my surprise then, when City Council voted unanimously to overturn their earlier decision, and to extend the "student" fare to students up to and including 64 years of age.  This is wonderful news, and while I doubt Obesity Panacea played a large role in the process (it probably had more to do with the students who packed City Council chambers prior to last week's vote on the issue), I wanted to share the good news with all of our readers.  And thanks to anyone who did send a letter to their City Councillor urging them to rethink their earlier decision - it seems to have worked. 


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Physically active vacations are more re-energizing

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 1 Response
Entering Golden, British Columbia

Last month, my girlfriend Daun and I went on a 5-day cycling trip through the Rocky Mountains. We had been invited to a wedding in Canmore (Alberta) one weekend, and another in Chase (British Columbia) the following weekend. The two cities are roughly 500km (300 miles) apart, and since we had a full week to make the trip, we decided to do it on our road bikes. Crossing the Rockies on a bike sounds pretty intense, and it certainly wasn't easy, but luckily most of the trip was downhill (Canmore is about 1 mile above sea-level, while Chase is less than a quarter-mile above sea-level), and we had plenty of time, so we were able to take our time and really enjoy our ride.

People often talk about how difficult it is to maintain a healthy lifestyle while on vacation. Peter wrote several posts on this topic earlier this summer, including an excellent list of ways to be physically active even when you are in locations that are not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. A cruise-ship is the perfect example - too much food, too much booze, and too little exercise. It's fun for a day or two, but you wind up feeling like crap, and need a vacation to detoxify from your vacation. How fun is that? So when I went on vacation earlier this summer, I started to question why, out of all the things one could choose to do for a vacation, people would choose put themselves in an environment where they will have no choice but to eat unhealthy food, and perform very little physical activity - two things that are almost guaranteed to make them feel awful.

Daun taking a breather.

I thought a lot about this issue on my trip (6+ hours/day on a bike gives you a lot of time to think), and I realized that instead of taking vacations that pigeon-hole us into unhealthy behaviors like eating too much and moving too little, we would all obviously be better off to take vacations that force us to engage in healthy behaviors. Things like hiking, skiing, cycling and canoeing are not only healthy, but they're cheap! That's why Daun and I first started taking cycling vacations - we couldn't afford to do much else! We took our first cycling vacation last year, when we setup shop at a small B&B in Picton, Ontario. Each day we would do a different short ride from our B&B - one day to some wineries (hence the below picture), one day to the beach, etc. It cost us almost nothing, and it was literally the best vacation I've ever had. And, after a few days of exercising and eating well (we made most of our own meals), we came home feeling completely re-energized.

A tasty way to end the day

Not surprisingly, limited evidence supports the idea that healthy vacations leave you feeling better than those characterized by gluttony and sloth. For example, Gerhard Strauss-Blasche and colleagues examined the links between vacation environment and recuperation in a study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine (yes, that's a real journal). The study included 191 German males and females who filled out questionnaires within two weeks of returning from a short vacation. Post-vacation "recuperation" was assessed by quantifying how closely subjects agreed with the statement "In comparison to the 2 weeks before vacation, I now feel mentally fitter, feel more balanced and relaxed, can concentrate better during work, feel physically fitter,do my work more easily, am in a better mood, and feel more recuperated".

So, what did the authors find? Physical activity during the trip was positively associated with post-vacation recuperation scores. In other words, the more physically active people were during their vacation, the more likely they were to feel recuperated upon their return. In fact, healthy behaviors including physical activity and adequate sleep accounted for 7% of the post-vacation recuperation.

Now of course this is only one study, and it only used questionnaire data, which is less than ideal. But I don't think it's surprising that people who engage in healthy behaviors during a vacation would feel better upon their return. So instead of looking at your vacation as a potential stumbling block to your healthy lifestyle, why not look at it as a chance to actually improve your healthy behaviors? And remember, that first glass of wine is always better after a day of cycling.


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Strauss-Blasche G, Reithofer B, Schobersberger W, Ekmekcioglu C, & Marktl W (2005). Effect of vacation on health: moderating factors of vacation outcome. Journal of travel medicine, 12 (2), 94-101 PMID: 15996454

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Is virtual reality the cure for obesity?

Sunday, September 13, 2009 Author: Peter Janiszewski, PhD 6 Responses

I know what you’re thinking. I was also a bit perplexed when I read the following headline: “Avatars could help fight obesity.”

This was a title of an article in the Triangle Business Journal discussing the results of a preliminary study published in the largely obscure Journal of Virtual Worlds Research.

In essence, this study (and I use the term ‘study’ very generously here) found that individuals who had personal virtual avatars of normal weight which exercised frequently tended to exercise frequently and be of normal weight in reality – as opposed to the virtual reality of Second Life.

If you are wondering what exactly I am referring to when I say ‘avatar’ or ‘Second Life’ – don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Basically, Second Life is a virtual world that can be accessed via the internet. It was launched back in 2003, and as of 2008 Second Life apparently had over 15 million accounts. In this virtual world, every person with an account (which you can get for free) has their own avatar, or a virtual representation of themselves (think Mii avatars you create of yourself and your friends on Nintendo Wii – if you are still lost, sincere apologies). In this world, acting through their avatars, people can do just about anything from chatting to strangers, shopping for clothes for their avatar, selling virtual goods, exercising, taking university courses (from 300 different accredited universities worldwide, honestly) and of course romancing other avatars (one of the most popular activities of this virtual world).

If you are interested to read more about Second Life, watch the video below – it is quite fascinating and somehow a little frightening as well.

So this is where this new publication on avatar’s weight status and exercise habits comes in.

The authors of the study wanted to test 2 main hypotheses:

1. Individuals with avatars who engage in physical activities in Second Life are more likely to engage in physical activities in real life.

2. Individuals with thinner avatars are more likely to be thinner in real life.

While I have read some interesting and arcane study methodology throughout my academic career, none even come close to this.

Here are some excerpts from the methods section of this ‘study':

“For this study, we conducted interviews of Second Life residents in our facility in Second Life. Avatar respondents were recruited through a notification sent to all members of the facility’s Survey Group in Second Life. The facility’s Survey Group is free for any avatar to join by signing up at a kiosk in the facility in Second Life; by joining, residents expressed interest in learning about participating in the facility’s surveys. Interested participants were asked to notify one of our staff avatars via Instant Message (IM) to schedule an appointment. Once contact was made via IM, our staff avatar screened the respondent for eligibility. In this study, our only eligibility requirement was that the respondent live in the United States in real life…”

(This last part gave me a good laugh – “in real life…”)

“Each interview took about 10 minutes. Respondents were paid 500 Linden dollars (the equivalent of approximately $2) for their time. All interviewing was done using the private text chat feature in Second Life that allows for privacy, as well as easy transcribing. Voice chat was not used.”

So did you catch all that?

These researchers actually had a virtual research facility made in a virtual world. Then, random avatars responded to the researcher’s virtual ad for a study and made an appointment to meet with a virtual researcher in a virtual research building in a virtual world. They then came for their appointment, and were interviewed (not in real life of course), and in return they made virtual dollars. All of this happened while the parties involved sat at some computer with an internet connection, with no actual visual or audio contact with a live human.

Not sure if it’s just me, but this alone is simply mind-blowing.

They ended up getting 29 different avatars to participate in the study.

Here’s what they found:

In response to their 1st hypothesis, “of those who reported high levels of physical activity for their Second Life avatars, 80.0% also reported participating in high physical activity in real life.”

In response to their 2nd hypothesis, the authors found that owners of thin avatars tended to be thinner than those who owned ‘average sized’ avatars – BMI of 24.7 versus 27.4 kg/m2.

When discussing the results of the study, the lead author, Elizabeth Dean was quoted as saying: "Based on these preliminary results, it seems likely that virtual reality users may adjust their identity to be consistent with that of their avatars."

Unfortunately, this VERY preliminary evidence consisting of NO statistical comparisons suggests nothing of the sort. In other words, Dean is shamelessly over-interpreting the findings of her study.

Think about it – is it any surprise that thin people chose to have thin avatars? Is it also surprising that people who regularly exercise in their real life would have their virtual selves also exercising?

Not at all! This does not suggest in any way that people would adjust their habits to conform to that of their avatar – if any causality can be implied, it would surely be in the reverse order (first comes real life, then your Second Life.)
This obvious caveat has not stopped many, including the study author, from misinterpreting the preliminary results.

In the end, I think it is unlikely that Second Life will help you shed pounds in real life – in fact, the idle sitting at the computer while interacting with the virtual world of Second Life may actually push the scale in the opposite direction.


Elizabeth Dean, Sarah Cook, Michael Keating, & Joe Murphy (2009). Does this avatar make me look fat? Journal of Virtual Worlds Research

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American Heart Association says the verdict is in - sugar is bad

Friday, September 11, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 9 Responses
Image by AdamSelwood.

In the past, I have written several posts about sugar (mainly fructose and high fructose corn syrup, aka HFCS), and how it is a driving force behind the current obesity epidemic.  The evidence is compelling - the intake of added sugars (especially HFCS) has dramatically increased over the past 30 years, an increase which is mirrored by the increased prevalence of obesity.  Further, these added sugars are "empty" calories, which tend to displace other foods that contain more nutrients.  Then there are the many ways that sugar (again, especially HFCS) disrupts both metabolism and the hormones that signal satiety, resulting in increased health risk as well as increased food intake (outlined wonderfully in this powerpoint presentation by Dr Robert Lustig of the University of California at San Fransisco).  That's right - sugar can actually make you more hungry!  The insulin response to sugar and resulting lethargy may result in decreased energy expenditure as well.  In short, sugar does many bad things to the human body, and it should be limited to a very small portion of our daily diet. 

Now is any of this really a shock to anyone?  Probably not.  Even the food industry agrees that both sugar and HFCS should only be consumed in moderation.  Don't believe me?  Check out this commercial for HFCS (email subscribers will need to visit our main page to see the clip):

Ok, so they reverse the statement to say that HFCS is fine in moderation, but the natural implication is that it's not ok to consume in excessive amounts.

But what amount of sugar is moderate, and what amount is excessive?  One can of pop?  A half-litre of chocolate milk?  Without a concrete value attached to it, "moderation" is pretty useless as a public health message.  Thankfully, the American Heart Association has stepped in to fill the gap, with an excellent new review paper that outlines all of the arguments against sugar intake, and then gives concrete recommendations on the amounts that we should be consuming on a daily basis.

The paper, which will be published next week in the journal Circulation, was written by Rachel Johnson and other experts in the fields of nutrition, physical activity, metabolism, and epidemiology.  They make an incredibly strong (and readable) argument that sugar and fructose have toxic effects on the human body, and that people should limit their intake accordingly, just as they would for other toxic substances.  What is that upper limit? As the authors put it:

"A prudent upper limit of intake is half of the discretionary calorie allowance that can be accommodated within the appropriate energy intake level needed for a person to achieve or maintain a healthy weight based on the US Department of Agriculture food intake patterns".

I know that's a bit wordy, so I'll give a concrete example.  Let's say that you're an average male, and thus require 2,200 calories per day to maintain body weight.  It is assumed that it will take roughly 1900 calories to meet your nutrient needs (e.g. vitamins, minerals, etc), which leaves you with 300 "discretionary" calories that do not contribute to your nutrient needs.  This report suggests that no more than half of these discretionary calories should be in the form of sugar.

Thus, men should limit their intake of added sugars to roughly 150 calories/day (9 teaspoons) while women should limit themselves to 80 calories (5 teaspoons).  For reference, a normal can of pop has 8 teaspoons of sugar and 130 calories.  In other words, try to limit your sugar intake to very low levels.

Now the authors go out of their way to say that these limits apply only to "added" sugars, and not to those found naturally in fruits and vegetables.  The word juice is never mentioned in their report, but the sugars in juice are no different from those in pop, and there is no reason to think that they have any different effect on the human body.  So best to limit your juice intake as well - eat your fruits and veggies instead. 

The American Heart Association report is freely available, and it is excellent reading for anyone interested in the health effects of sugar consumption.  It can be found here.

Have a great weekend,


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Johnson, R., Appel, L., Brands, M., Howard, B., Lefevre, M., Lustig, R., Sacks, F., Steffen, L., Wylie-Rosett, J., & , . (2009). Dietary Sugars Intake and Cardiovascular Health. A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association Circulation DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.192627

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Fast food lunches contain RIDICULOUS amounts of calories

Wednesday, September 09, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 9 Responses
Image by Christian Cable.

In the past, I have written in support of calorie counts being posted on menus in fast-food restaurants.  The merits of calories counts on menus can be debated (I personally feel the potential benefits far outweigh the potential costs), but a recent study makes one thing perfectly clear - meals eaten in fast food restaurants contain an absolutely unbelievable number of calories.

The new study, which is available ahead of print on the website of the journal Obesity, was performed by Tamara Dumanovsky and colleagues at the New York City Department of Hygiene and Mental Health.  The authors canvassed 300 randomly selected fast food restaurants between noon and 2pm, and quantified caloric intake by collecting receipts (as well as a follow-up survey) from 7,318 customers.  Calories were assigned to each meal based on the nutritional information posted on each restaurant's website, and when the calorie content of an item was unclear (for example, if the participant did not divulge the type of salad dressing that they used), it was assumed that the item was the lowest-calorie item in its category.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the meals in this study were consumed in burger joints (55%, vs 27% in sandwich chains and just 9% in chicken restaurants).  Meal combos consisting of at least two food items and a beverage were the most popular purchase, accounting for 54% of sales across all restaurants, and for more than 70% of sales in burger chains. But here's the really interesting finding - the average meal purchased by customers in the present study contained 827 calories!  Chicken chains had the highest average calorie content at 931 calories, followed by Taco-Bell at 900 calories (Yo quiero angioplasty!) and burger chains with 857 calories.  The authors also provide the breakdowns for individual burger chains, with Burger King rising above the pack with an average calorie content of 926, followed by Wendy's at 858 and McDonald's at 829 (the commercial practically writes itself - "an independent study found that McDonald's customers purchase less calories per meal than customers at Burger King or Wendy's").  Sandwich chains had the lowest average calorie content, with the average meal at Subway containing "just" 749 calories.

I can't tell you how ridiculous these calorie counts are.  To put these numbers in context, it is usually assumed that the average person requires about 2000 calories per day. Meanwhile, the authors report that over 1/3 of all meals purchased contained over 1000 calories, and that the average "combo" meal at burger chains contained a whopping 1,200 calories!  I mean, we all know that a Whopper Combo is not the healthiest choice, but I find it absolutely shocking that the average meal purchased at Burger King contains more than 900 calories.  Even Subway, which enjoys a much better reputation than burger and chicken chains, still averaged a very high number of calories in each meal.  And this was only at lunch-time - what would the authors have found if they had looked at supper meals?  Could the calorie counts possibly get any higher?

The question in my mind is, what can we possibly do about all this?  If we purposely setup booths to over-feed people as efficiently as possible, they couldn't possible do any better than major fast-food chains.  Calorie counts on menus can't hurt - they may help consumers choose lower-calorie options, or they may embarrass some chains into lowering the number of calories in their items, as I have blogged about previously.  "Fat taxes" like the one proposed (and then abandoned) in New York might help too.  But we need to do something, because these restaurants are incredibly good at getting people to purchase incredibly large amounts of food.  And as much as I hate to say it as an exercise physiologist, very few people can exercise enough to compensate for a 900 calorie lunch on a regular basis.  Somehow we need to convince people to either stop visiting these chains, or to consume less calories when they do, or both (none of which will please the food chains themselves).  The authors of the new study present some ideas of their own (smaller portions, healthier options, etc), but I just don't see fast food chains making any of these changes unless they are forced to by the government or by consumer demand.  I don't have the answer to this one, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

How do you think we can reduce the average number of calories purchases in fast food restaurants?


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Dumanovsky, T., Nonas, C., Huang, C., Silver, L., & Bassett, M. (2009). What People Buy From Fast-food Restaurants: Caloric Content and Menu Item Selection, New York City 2007 Obesity DOI: 10.1038/oby.2009.90

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The 'Half Ton' Mom, Dad and Son

Monday, September 07, 2009 Author: Peter Janiszewski, PhD 4 Responses

While we usually don't post on holidays such as today, I just had to share the fascinating shows I watched last night.

For some reason, the Learning Channel had a barrage of shows dealing with obesity. Three of these were particularly interesting as they dealt with the struggles of life among the most obese individuals in the world. The shows focused on the late Renee Williams, apparently the heaviest woman in the world (980 lbs), Kenneth Brumley, the heaviest man in the world (1035 lbs), and Billy Robbins, the heaviest teenager (838 lbs). In addition to all being massively obese, they all resided in Houston, Texas. However, they were not in any way related to one another.

In each one of these cases, the individuals were removed from their homes (walls had to come down) and taken to hospitals in an effort to help them lose weight. All 3 underwent gastric bypass surgery - a very risky procedure in such individuals. Withink 2 weeks of the surgery, sadly, Renee Williams, 29, and mother of 2, died of a heart attack. However, from what I can gather both Kenneth and Billy have recovered well from the surgery and have lost a tremendous amount of weight. Rather than going through each of these cases, I have provided YouTube links below to 2 of these individuals (for some reason YouTube would not allow me to imbed the videos here).

What are your reactions to these videos? Does it surprise you that a human body can gain that much excess adipose tissue and keep living? Is it coincidental that all of these individuals resided within the same city?


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A Plea to Cyclists: Please Obey Traffic Laws

Friday, September 04, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 5 Responses
 Image by Fred Hsu.

This has been a tragic summer for cyclists.  First 5 cyclists were mowed down while riding in a bike lane in an Ottawa suburb, while another Ottawa area cyclist was seriously injured just weeks later.  Then there was the case of Brian Browers, a Kingston police officer who suffered life-threatening injuries after he was hit by a truck while cycling to work (Peter wrote an excellent editorial on Brian's story for the Kingston Whig Standard, which can be read here).   And just this week, the former Attorney General of Ontario was charged with criminal negligence following a bizarre accident that resulted in the death of a bike courier.  Something needs to be done, and I have a very simple solution - cyclists need to obey traffic laws.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not blaming the cyclists for all of these accidents.  In at least two of the incidents cited above, it appears that the cyclists were following every rule of the road, and had no hand in the accident that caused them so much harm.  And yet, whenever an article about a cycling accident is posted online (including Peter's recent post on the topic), the comments invariably question whether it was the cyclists' own recklessness that caused the crash.  In fact, it's the first question that comes into my head as well.  Why is that?  Because hardly anyone obeys even the most basic traffic laws when they are on a bike.  They run stop signs and red lights, turn without signaling, ride against traffic, and do all manner of things that they would never consider while driving a motor vehicle.  And I understand - I ride to work everyday, and it's awfully tempting to run through a red light when there is no traffic coming the other way.  But cycling will never be truly safe until all drivers treat cyclists like they deserve to be on the road.  And drivers will never give us that respect until we stop casually flaunting many of the most basic rules of the road (don't even get me started on Critical Mass, a protest group made up of cyclists who intentionally flout traffic laws in a misguided effort to prove that "we are traffic").

Just two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I rode our bikes from Canmore, Alberta, to Chase, British Columbia - a distance of roughly 500km on the Trans-Canada Highway which took us from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other.  I was pretty apprehensive about our safety before the trip began, but once we got on the road I was constantly impressed by how many drivers (and especially truckers) slowed down and moved over while passing us, showing us as much respect as they would show to any other vehicle on the road.  There were of course those who passed us at full speed and came just inches from us and our bikes, but thankfully they were a small minority.  My point is that most drivers are careful and courteous while driving near cyclists.  Rarely do I see cyclists showing the same respect to motor vehicles.

The great tragedy is that when I ask people why they don't commute by bike more often, they almost always say that it's because they fear for their safety.  I understand - it's not fun when a bus mirror passes just inches from your shoulder while riding down a busy street.  But most people don't realize that if they obey basic traffic rules (and common sense), cycling is quite safe.  In fact, I have only been hit by a car once, and it was my own fault (I was riding on the sidewalk in undergrad, a practice which I have avoided ever since).  I know far more people who have been involved in accidents while driving a car than when riding their bikes.  True, the consequences are more severe when you're on a bike, but that's just one more reason to minimize your risk by obeying traffic rules.  And the benefits of commuting by bike vastly outweigh the risks. Commuting by bike even a few times a week can result in dramatic health benefits, reduce your carbon footprint, and free up space for other drivers on the road and in parking lots all at the same time.  Plus, it can be a beautiful way to get around!  Take, for example, these pictures from my daily 6km commute, roughly 2/3 of which is on a paved trail and 1/3 is on major roads.

Not a bad way to get to work, eh?  Of course I spend a few minutes surrounded by heavy traffic, but it is more than made up for by the beautiful surroundings the rest of the way.

I am hopeful that we will see changes that improve cycling safety in the near future - harsher penalties for drivers who hit cyclists, more bike lanes, etc - but this will never happen until the public sees cyclists as having a legitimate right to ride on the roads.  And that will never happen until more of us obey the rules of the road.

Peter summed it up best in his recent editorial:

"Until mutual respect develops between cyclists and motorists, few [individuals] will adopt habitual active transportation, no matter how many encouraging reports the medical community releases."  

Have a great long weekend, and consider going for a law-abiding ride if the weather permits!


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Horseback Riding - One of the Best Forms of Exercise?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009 Author: Travis Saunders 4 Responses

Some fitness machines are so different that you can't help but smile.  One popular example is the awesomely ridiculous Hawaii chair which became an internet sensation last year.  So it is with the uGallop (also known as iGallop) - one of the only fitness machines that I desperately want to have.

What is the uGallop?  It's like a miniature version of the mechanical bulls that you often see in country bars (not that I go to country bars often, but they are pretty hard to avoid when you do your undergrad in Calgary).  The idea is that as you ride the uGallop, you are constantly forced to contract your core and thigh muscles to maintain your balance, which the makers of the uGallop claim will result in increased fitness and basal metabolism, and decreased body fat.  Or, as they explain on their website:

"When your fats become muscles through repeated exercise, you burn more calories even while at rest."

Now I would like to point out that when you exercise, fat cells do not become muscle cells.  You may reduce the size of fat cells, and increase the size/number of muscle cells, but I assure you that your fat cells do not become muscle.

But what I would really like to focus on is the uGallop promotional video which you can view below (email subscribers can view the video on our main page by clicking here):

The promotional video starts with this claim:

"horse back riding is one of the best forms of exercise, but it's not easily available to everyone...

Now of course the idea is that the uGallop emulates horseback riding, which "is one of the best forms of exercise".  But when it comes to caloric expenditure, research suggests that horseback riding is mediocre at best.  In fact, Barbara Ainsworth and colleagues compiled a list of the energy expenditure associated with a tremendous range of activities, which was published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.  This exhaustive list includes energy expenditures typically associated with hundreds of activities ranging from hand rolling steel to playing the accordion, and everything in between. 

The authors assigned each activity a metabolic equivalent or "MET", depending on the typical energy expenditure associated with that activity.  The higher the MET value, the more energy that is consumed by an individual engaging in that activity.  For example, sitting quietly has a MET value of 1.  In contrast, running at 7.5 miles per hour has a MET value of 12.

What about horseback riding?  It has a MET value of 4.  To put that in perspective, that is the same as walking at 3 miles per hour.  It is also the same as curling, tai chi, juggling, raking leaves, and showering.  That's right, showering. Now if the horse is "trotting" the MET value jumps to 6.5, which is certainly better, but which is still lower than any intensity of running, as well as all but the lowest intensities of skating, swimming, and cycling.  Unless you are riding a horse at full gallop, horseback riding burns less calories than most other accepted forms of endurance activity, as well as several types of housework.  In fact, according to Dr Ainsworth, horseback riding burns the same number of calories as coaching competitive sports!

Now this is not to say that horseback riding is a bad form of exercise.  It's roughly equivalent to walking, which has been shown to have tremendous health benefits.  And if this video is any indication, the uGallop itself may burn a lot of calories - if you are able to ride it long enough.

Regardless of the health benefits, I think the uGallop could be a lot of fun at parties, and I'd really like to have one.  So if you buy one, please let me borrow it.

To read more about the uGallop or purchase one yourself, you can visit their website here. Thanks to Dr Jen Kuk for sending me the video of the uGallop.


Ainsworth BE, Haskell WL, Leon AS, Jacobs DR Jr, Montoye HJ, Sallis JF, & Paffenbarger RS Jr (1993). Compendium of physical activities: classification of energy costs of human physical activities. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 25 (1), 71-80 PMID: 8292105

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About Us

We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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