Tag Archives: sport

Algae tattooed for doping and oxygen administration

The paper by Qiao et al. (2020) in Science Advances shows that unicellular algae injected near a hypoxic tumour photosynthesise oxygen in the body in response to infrared light with wavelength 660nm that penetrates >4mm into tissues. The oxygen saturation of the tumour rises from 6.2% to 30% in 2 hours after the algae receive a 5-minute laser exposure. The oxygen sensitises the tumour to radiation therapy. No side effects were found from the algae in this or previous research. The performance of the algae stayed the same when these were coated with red blood cell membranes to delay their clearance from the body.

Another application of algae that can produce oxygen in the organism is doping in sports. The algae can be tattooed under skin that is exposed to light containing enough of the wavelengths which the algae use and which can penetrate under the skin. For example, long-distance runners outdoors in warm weather have most of their skin exposed to sunlight, thus have a large surface area suitable for algal oxygen production. The additional oxygen from photosynthesis improves athletic performance. The only question is whether the oxygen generation is quantitatively fast enough to make a difference. In elite sports, every little advantage counts, so athletes are probably willing to use algae tattoos.

The algae are not dangerous even in deep blood vessels and tissues. Eventually the organism clears the algae, but the clearance of foreign particles is slower in the skin than in deep tissues, as evidenced by the persistence of ordinary tattoos. So the algae will last for a daylong competition.

Patients with breathing problems, for example with coronavirus-induced lung inflammation, may also benefit from algae tattooed on a large area of skin which is then illuminated with 660nm light. Such oxygen supplementation reduces the need for mechanical ventilation. Again, the question is the amount of oxygen from a whole-body algal tattoo.

Clock and ads projected on the ceiling

At a public swimming pool, the clocks on the wall are usually small, far and hard to see through droplet-covered goggles. The clock is relevant for planning to finish by a certain time and for tracking one’s speed (lap time). A solution is to use a projector to show a large clock on the ceiling, or to draw the numbers on the ceiling with a laser – essentially a programmed pointer.

The ceiling is also an untapped advertising display space, not just at swimming pools and gyms, but in any building. Ceiling ads are more valuable in swimming pools, gyms and yoga studios than in most other structures, because people doing backstroke, bench press or fish pose are facing the ceiling, which is not the case in a majority of buildings.

The floor is also mostly unused ad space. Projecting ads on the floor is not as useful as the ceiling, because people walking through the projector beam block the display.

Exercise is better than working to buy health insurance

Health insurance does not insure health, but wealth. Exercising to prevent disease is often better than working to buy health insurance to cover treating that disease. For example, cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease predominantly occur in old age, so insurance against these is highly substitutable with exercise.

The American Association for Critical Illness Insurance in 2011 listed the following average annual premiums by age group for a male nonsmoker based on a $40,000 benefit for treatment of cancer, stroke or heart attack. Age 40: $575 to $610; age 45: $745 to $785; age 50: $940 to $980. Similar premiums in 2019 only buy cancer insurance.

At an after-tax hourly wage of $20, paying these premiums requires 30-50 work hours per year, about 0.6-1 hour per week, or 0.6-1% of waking hours. From a baseline of zero sports, one hour per week of exercise increases lifespan by one year, or by about 1/80 of life expectancy. Whether switching an hour per week from work to exercise (and cutting health insurance to compensate for the lost hourly wage) is a good investment in terms of lifespan depends on how much treatment lengthens life and how much health insurance increases the probability or quality of treatment. Data is difficult to find on both the effect of treatment on lifespan and the effect of health insurance on treatment.

The median survival rate to hospital discharge after EMS-treated out-of-hospital cardiac arrest with any first recorded rhythm is 7.9%. So for serious heart conditions, treatment and thus health insurance does not make much difference. Lung cancer treatment is said to prolong survival by about three months, which also seems small. Even if no health insurance implies no treatment, which is not the case because emergency care is still provided, investing worktime to buy health insurance seems to have a low benefit. People with cancer survive with a probability about 2/3 of the survival probability of a comparable population without cancer, so the upper bound on the benefit of treatment is 2/3 times the probability of getting cancer times the remaining life expectancy. This upper bound is loose, because zero treatment does not reduce the 5-year survival probability to zero.

Investing time to gain lifetime

Exercising lengthens lifespan, but the return is diminishing in the amount of exercise. From zero physical activity, one extra hour of exercise per week gains about one year of life expectancy (doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.t003). Thus investing 1/168 of total weekly hours, or about 1% of the waking hours that are not spent on the quickest possible eating or hygiene, adds about 1/80 of lifespan in developed countries. This time investment has a positive return, because the percentage of lifetime spent on sports is less than the percentage gained.

Exercising may be optimal even for someone who intensely dislikes exercise, because one way to think about this investment is as choosing a year of being dead or a year of exercising plus some extra time living and not exercising. If doing sports is weakly preferred to being dead, then the first few hours of exercise per week are a positive-return investment.

One criticism of the above logic is that the lifetime gained is at the end of life, but the time doing sports is spread evenly throughout life. If extra time when old is worth much less than when young, then investing time in one’s youth to gain years of life in retirement may not be optimal. However, the question then becomes why is time less valuable when old. If the reason is lower ability to enjoy life (due to chronic diseases, cognitive decline, decreased libido, etc), then counterarguments are that exercise increases healthspan (quality-adjusted years of life) and the progress of medicine increases the quality of life in old age over time. If technological progress becomes fast enough to lengthen average lifespan by more than one year each year, then life expectancy becomes infinite. Increasing one’s lifespan to survive until that time then has an infinite return.

If life expectancy does not become infinite in the 21st century, then the diminishing return to exercise in terms of lifespan implies that there is a finite optimal amount of exercise per week, unless one’s utility increases in exercise no matter what fraction of time is spent on it. At 10 hours of physical activity per week, one needs to add about 10 more hours to gain one year of life (doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335.t003). Spending 10% more of one’s waking time to gain 1/80 of lifetime is a negative-return investment in pure time terms, but may still be rational for the increase in health and quality of life.

In the research, exercise is defined as moderate- or vigorous-intensity activities: those with an intensity level of at least three metabolic equivalents (METs) according to the Compendium of Physical Activities. In other words, the energy cost of a given activity divided by the resting energy expenditure should be at least three (the approximate intensity of a brisk walk). The relevant weekly hours of moderate- or vigorous-intensity activity and the years of life gained are in the table below.

Physical Activity Level:0 0.1–3.74 3.75–7.4 7.5–14.9 15.0–22.4 22.5+

Years of life gained: 0 1.8 2.5 3.4 4.2 4.5

Asking questions of yourself

To make better decisions, ask about all your activities “Am I doing this right? Is there a better way?” I would have benefited from considering such questions about many everyday tasks. For example, I brushed my teeth wrong (sawing at the roots) until late teens, brushed my teeth at the wrong time (right after a meal when the enamel is soft) until my 30s. I only learned to cut my own hair in my mid-20s, and this was the highest-return investment I ever made, because a hair clipper costs as much as a haircut, so pays for itself with the first use.

Peeling a kiwi with a spoon is far easier than slicing with a knife. All it took to learn this was one web search, but it required asking myself the question of whether I was peeling fruit optimally. Same for extracting the seed from an avocado.

Cracking the shell of a hard-boiled egg, making two holes at the ends and blowing air under the membrane before peeling is another trick I wish I had known earlier.

Microwaved food is cooler in the centre, so to avoid scalding one’s mouth, it is helpful to start eating it from the middle. Cooked food left in a covered cooking pot or transferred to a storage container while still mildly hot does not go bad at room temperature for several days – doing this experiment required posing this hypothesis. Drinking without touching the bottle with one’s mouth turns out to be quite easy and is widespread in India.

Only after learning to drive did I start meaningfully using gears on a bicycle, and it took about 15 years more to start shifting approximately correctly (pedalling cadence 60-100 rotations per minute, downshifting before stopping, avoiding cross-geared riding). Similarly for basic bike maintenance like cleaning and oiling the chain, selecting the appropriate front and rear tire pressure given one’s weight and tire widths. Seat height is one thing I figured out early, but not handlebar height.

As a teenager, I would have benefited from asking myself whether I was overtraining, whether my nutrition was reasonable, how soon to return to training after various injuries and whether to seek medical assistance with these. Questioning the competence of coaches and doing a simple web search for sports medicine resources would have prevented following some of their mistaken advice.

Sometimes asking yourself the question reveals that you are already doing the task correctly. On the internet, people claim that they do not use shampoo, just water, and their hair stays clean-smelling and more lush than using detergent. An experiment not to use shampoo was a failure for me, causing greasy hair and lots of dandruff after a few days. The optimality of shampoo may depend on individual scalp and hair characteristics. On the other hand, a single-blade disposable razor and cold water give me a better shave than multi-bladed fancy brands with foam (that get clogged), and the disposable razor stays sharp enough for a month or two of everyday shaving.

When going to teach, it may be worth asking whether the room is the correct one, even if some students show up and the room is free, because once in this situation I was in a room with the right label, but in the wrong building.

On the other hand, constantly doubting oneself is unhealthy and unhelpful. If enough evidence points one way, then it is time to make up one’s mind.

Tradeoff between flashiness and competitive advantage in sports

Sports equipment is often brightly coloured, with eye-catching shape, such as for bicycle frames. Sometimes flashiness is beneficial, for example improving the visibility of a bike or a runner on the road, or a boat on the water. However, in sports where competitors act directly against each other (ballgames, racquet sports, fencing), eye-catching equipment makes it easier for opponents to track one’s movements, which is a disadvantage. For a similar reason, practical military equipment is camouflaged and dull-coloured, unlike dress uniforms.

Athletes would probably gain a small advantage by using either dull grey clothing, perhaps with camouflage spots, or equipment that matches the colour of the sports arena, e.g. green grass-patterned shoes and socks for a football field, blue or red for a tennis court. Eye-deceiving colouring would be especially useful in competitions based on rapid accurate movement and feints, such as fencing or badminton.

Another option for interfering with an opponent’s tracking of one’s movements is to use reflective clothing (mirror surfaces, safety orange or neon yellow) to blind the rival. This would work especially well for outdoor sports in the sunshine or in stadiums lit by floodlights.

One downside of dull clothing may be that it does not inspire fans or sponsors, so wearing it may reduce the athlete’s income from merchandise and advertising. A similar tradeoff occurs in real vs movie fighting. Blindingly bright equipment does not have this disadvantage.

Another downside of camouflage may occur if it replaces red clothing, which has been found to give football teams a small advantage. The reason is psychological: red makes the wearers more aggressive and the opponents less.

Golf as a cartel monitoring device for skilled services

Many explanations have been advanced for golf and similar costly, seemingly boring, low-effort group activities. One reason could be signalling one’s wealth and leisure by an expensive and time-consuming sport, another may be networking during a low-effort group activity that does not interfere with talking.

An additional explanation is monitoring others’ time use. A cartel agrees to restrict the quantity that its members provide, in order to raise price. In skilled services (doctors, lawyers, engineers, notaries, consultants) the quantity sold is work hours. Each member of a cartel has an incentive to secretly increase supply to obtain more profit. Monitoring is thus needed to sustain the cartel. One way to check that competitors are not selling more work hours is to observe their time use by being together. To reduce boredom, the time spent in mutual monitoring should be filled somehow, and the activity cannot be too strenuous, otherwise it could not be sustained for long enough to meaningfully decrease hours worked. Playing golf fulfills these requirements.

A prediction from this explanation for golf is that participation in time-consuming group activities would be greater in industries selling time-intensive products and services. By contrast, if supply is relatively insensitive to hours worked, for example in capital-intensive industries or standard software, then monitoring competitors’ time use is ineffective in restricting their output and sustaining a cartel. Other ways of checking quantity must then be found, such as price-matching guarantees, which incentivise customers to report a reduced price of a competitor.

Lifting weights a smaller distance may be more intense exercise

Somewhat counterintuitively, moving a part of the body a greater distance may be easier in some cases. For example, lying on your back and lifting straight legs off the floor, the muscles work harder when the legs are close to the floor than when they are close to vertical. Leg lifts lying on your back are easier when their amplitude is larger (90 degrees as opposed to 45 degrees off the ground).

In many exercises, lifting the limb to an easier position gives the muscles a rest, making the workout less intense (calories burned per unit of time) overall. Examples are biceps curls until the forearm is vertical, straight arm raises all the way overhead, deadlifts to a straight or even backward tilting posture, as opposed to stopping partway through. Slower movement may make an exercise more intense by spending more time in an effortful position, e.g. slow push-ups or squats.

Lifting a longer distance may also make an exercise easier by giving a greater opportunity to swing the limb and use inertia, which is usually bad technique. For example, standing leg lifts to the front take less effort when the leg starts from behind the body and is already moving when passing vertical, compared to starting from holding the leg slightly to the front of the body.

Fundraising by exercising should be replaced with useful work

Sports events or individual trips are sometimes marketed as raising money for charity, e.g. run for a cure of some disease, cycling across the country to attract donations, climbing a mountain to draw attention and resources to an issue. While these are better than doing nothing, a more efficient way to exercise and raise money and awareness is to do useful work. Instead of running or cycling a prepared route, deliver packages for free (be a volunteer bike courier or postal worker). Other kinds of exercise useful to someone are loading cargo (lifting), stocking shelves in a charity shop, scrubbing and mopping in a shelter, picking up litter in public areas, shovelling snow, digging for public works such as repairing underground pipes. When done as rapidly as possible, these can be quite intense sports.

Most of such physical labour can also be done collaboratively, which may be more fun than an individual sport such as running or cycling. Competing on the speed and quality of the work is also possible.

The work may help the charitable cause directly. For example, delivering tissue samples from a collection point to a lab contributes to cancer research, lifting patients between stretchers and beds benefits a hospital. Building, maintaining and cleaning a shelter for a vulnerable group is an obvious way to help, as are stocking shelves, moving supplies and digging for construction and maintenance.

Recovering faster from a sprint by jogging than by walking

It seems that the panting and muscle weakness right after a sprint passes faster when I jog than when I walk or stand (the recovery I am talking about here is the minutes it takes to get back to normal breathing, not the days it takes for muscle soreness to disappear). I did not find empirical research on whether jogging actually speeds recovery from a sprint – it could be just my false perception. For this blog post, I will assume my perception is correct and speculate about why.
Faster recovery of breath when jogging seems counterintuitive, because jogging takes more power (energy per unit of time) than walking, so consumes the body’s cardiovascular output and nutrient reserves faster. The increased consumption should delay the short-term recovery. However, the perception of recovery need not be positively correlated with the whole body’s oxygen and glucose consumption, only with the CO2 reaching the chemoreceptors (either central in the brain’s respiratory centre, or peripheral in the carotid arteries and the aorta).
If the blood vessels in the legs expand during a sprint, and the blood pressure falls after a sprint faster than the blood vessels contract, then blood may pool in the legs and less of it may reach the chemoreceptors. Blood is forced up from the legs by the contractions of the leg muscles, which are more intense and frequent during jogging than walking. Therefore jogging may increase the venous return, leading to a better blood supply to the torso and the brain, which the latter perceives as faster recovery from exercise.
Even if the contractions of the leg muscles during jogging and walking had the same intensity and frequency, the group of muscles activated during jogging does not completely overlap with those working during walking. One muscle group may surround the major veins in the legs more closely, thus pump blood up more effectively.
There may be evolutionary reasons why the jogging muscles are better at stimulating venous return – faster overall circulation is needed during more intense exercise, for example when jogging compared to walking. Better venous return speeds up the circulation.
A mechanical reason why jogging may improve recovery from a sprint better than walking is that the jogging muscles overlap with the sprinting muscles more than the walking muscles do. If blood pools in the sprinting muscles and needs to be returned to the core, then contracting the jogging muscles forces blood out of the sprinting muscles better than contracting the walking muscles does.