Tag Archives: science

Lose the Bouncy Ball Chair

Well, turns out that those icons of alternative office space — exercise ball chairs — didn’t hold up well with the scientists. You’ll burn at least four more calories per hour (hey, that’s a cookie a day), but it won’t fix your posture.

…a 2009 British study found that prolonged sitting on a therapy ball led to just as much slumping and “poor sitting position” as a desk chair.

Another study last year, by Dutch researchers [found that] the balls produced more muscle activity and 33 percent more “trunk motion.” But they also produced more spinal shrinkage.

“It is concluded that the advantages with respect to physical loading of sitting on an exercise ball may not outweigh the disadvantages,” the researchers wrote.

You’ll have to keep going to yoga.

The Claim: Replacing Your Desk Chair With an Exercise Ball can Improve Your Posture, NY Times

More Reasons to Get a Massage

Need an excuse to get a massage? Research shows that it’s good for your stress levels (duh), and immune system — and that the effects vary by type!

Volunteers who received [deep-tissue] Swedish massage experienced significant decreases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol in blood and saliva, and in arginine vasopressin, a hormone that can lead to increases in cortisol. They also had increases in the number of lymphocytes, white blood cells that are part of the immune system.

Volunteers who had the light massage experienced greater increases in oxytocin, a hormone associated with contentment, than the Swedish massage group, and bigger decreases in adrenal corticotropin hormone, which stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol.

Now, how do I get on this volunteer list?

Massage Benefits are More Than Skin Deep, NY Times

A Questioning Mind

“When we are not sure, we are alive.” — Graham Greene

Fascinating article in Scientific American Mind this month: The Willpower Paradox. Turns out that resolving to do something is not nearly as effective as wondering if you will do it.

…Those primed with the interrogative phrase “Will I?” expressed a much greater commitment to exercise regularly than did those primed with the declarative phrase “I will.”

What’s more, when the volunteers were questioned about why they felt they would be newly motivated to get to the gym more often, those primed with the question said things like: “Because I want to take more responsibility for my own health.” Those primed with “I will” offered strikingly different explanations, such as: “Because I would feel guilty or ashamed of myself if I did not.”

This last finding is crucial. It indicates that those with questioning minds were more intrinsically motivated to change. They were looking for a positive inspiration from within, rather than attempting to hold themselves to a rigid standard. Those asserting will lacked this internal inspiration, which explains in part their weak commitment to future change. Put in terms of addiction recovery and self-improvement in general, those who were asserting their willpower were in effect closing their minds and narrowing their view of their future. Those who were questioning and wondering were open-minded—and therefore willing to see new possibilities for the days ahead.

I’ve always wondered why my softer declarations were more effective than my stricter ones. I wonder if I’ll remember this article in the future?

Stand Up, Sit Down: Fight

Two great articles on ergonomics in today’s Times: a review of a standing desk and a panel discussion of the article. (For a third, read the Wall Street Journal’s January 2010 piece on the dangers of sedentary life.) Standing up while working is starting to trickle into various offices and schools.

As I noted in the comments, I love ideas for work habit adaptation. I fidget all day long and finally figured out that a break every 90 minutes (as long as it’s not to the fridge!) is a really good thing. In college I propped a desk on top of another, to read standing. And I definitely miss the ease of an easel (with a stool to perch on). Maybe that setup will make its way into our computer tech some day.

A Rested Mind

“For those just coming back from vacation, think carefully about what you are going to put your fresh, valuable mind to in your first few days. Value this resource highly. It may be your only chance to see the mountain you are on, to decide if you’re taking the right path up, or even if it’s the right mountain to be climbing at all.” ~ David Rock in Psychology Today

For the past few weeks, I’ve been working on clearing my mind more often during the day. The natural tendency for a busy mind is to work ever-harder to crack a problem or find an innovative solution. The yogic belief is that a clear, unburdened, relaxed mind is actually a more creative, efficient problem solver. And now that belief has a boost from hardcore science.

Continue reading

Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious

Good reminder as the holiday music starts playing: exercise creates physical, as well as mental, buffers for stress in the brain. Rats who had run for several weeks before stress tests (like swimming in cold water):

  • showed less activation in neurons associated with stress
  • displayed less anxiety and helplessness
  • maintained calmness and curiosity, even when injected with oxidizing chemicals

But of course it’s not instant:

Rats that ran for only three weeks did not show much reduction in stress-induced anxiety, but those that ran for at least six weeks did.

Six weeks ’til New Year’s. Go!

The New York Times: “Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious”

Stress Not, Worriers

The Times had a (long) article on worriers in Sunday’s magazine. Studies have identified a subset of infants/children with “high-reactive” temperaments. They go on to be inhibited adolescents, and anxious adults. So if relaxation techniques don’t seem to do you much good, it could be that you’re naturally wired more tightly. This isn’t all bad, however:

People with a high-reactive temperament — as long as it doesn’t show itself as a clinical disorder — are generally conscientious and almost obsessively well-prepared. Worriers are likely to be the most thorough workers and the most attentive friends. Someone who worries about being late will plan to get to places early. Someone anxious about giving a public lecture will work harder to prepare for it. Test-taking anxiety can lead to better studying; fear of traveling can lead to careful mapping of transit routes.

Kagan told me that in the 40 years he worked at Harvard, he hired at least 200 research assistants, “and I always looked for high-reactives. They’re compulsive, they don’t make errors, they’re careful when they’re coding data.”

…what distinguishes the high-reactives who learn to adapt from those who don’t often comes down to something simple, like finding one or two supportive friends — or, like Mary [a test subject] and her ballet, finding something they’re good at and can feel self-confident about.

No mention of yoga or other treatments for anxiety; the article is more focused on presenting the background research and the corresponding brain anatomy.

Any worriers want to be my intern?

What Color is Your Placebo?

Wired has a great article about the increasing effectiveness of placebos (and how the drug companies are scrambling to keep up), and it turns out that a large variable is COLOR:

Yellow pills
make the most effective antidepressants, like little doses of pharmaceutical sunshine.

Red pills
can give you a more stimulating kick. Wake up, Neo.

The color green
reduces anxiety, adding more chill to the pill.

White tablets
particularly those labeled “antacid”—are superior for soothing ulcers, even when they contain nothing but lactose.



So I wasn’t crazy when I insisted that certain colors are necessary to wear on certain days. I’ve gotten some teasing for that one. And the whole color scheme of my apartment suddenly makes sense.

Frequency and wording also play a part:

More is better,
scientists say. Placebos taken four times a day deliver greater relief than those taken twice daily.

Branding matters.
Placebos stamped or packaged with widely recognized trademarks are more effective than “generic” placebos.

Clever names
can add a placebo boost to the physiological punch in real drugs. Viagra implies both vitality and an unstoppable Niagara of sexy.



So think about that next time you’re naming a yoga class or practicing a mantra…