Why Sitting May Be Bad for Your Brain

Why Sitting May Be Bad for Your Brain

Sitting for hours without moving can slow the flow of blood to our brains, according to a cautionary new study of office workers, a finding that could have implications for long-term brain health. But getting up and strolling for just two minutes every half-hour seems to stave off this decline in brain blood flow and may even increase it.

Delivering blood to our brains is one of those automatic internal processes that most of us seldom consider, although it is essential for life and cognition. Brain cells need the oxygen and nutrients that blood contains, and several large arteries constantly shuttle blood up to our skulls.

Because this flow is so necessary, the brain tightly regulates it, tracking a variety of physiological signals, including the levels of carbon dioxide in our blood, to keep the flow rate within a very narrow range.

But small fluctuations do occur, both sudden and lingering, and may have repercussions. Past studies in people and animals indicate that slight, short-term drops in brain blood flow can temporarily cloud thinking and memory, while longer-term declines are linked to higher risks for some neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia.

Other research has shown that uninterrupted sitting dampens blood flow to various parts of the body. Most of those studies looked at the legs, which are affected the most by our postures, upright or not. Stay seated for several hours, and blood flow within the many blood vessels of the legs can slacken.

Whether a similar decline might occur in the arteries carrying blood to our brains was not known, however.

So for the new study, which was published in June in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in England gathered 15 healthy, adult, male and female office workers.

The scientists wanted to recruit people who habitually spent time at a desk since, for them, long hours of sitting would be normal.

The researchers asked these men and women to visit the university’s performance lab on three separate occasions. During each, they were fitted with specialized headbands containing ultrasound probes that would track blood flow through their middle cerebral arteries, one of the main vessels supplying blood to the brain.

They also breathed briefly into masks that measured their carbon dioxide levels at the start of the session, so that scientists could see whether levels of that gas might be driving changes in brain blood flow. Blood carbon dioxide levels can be altered by changes in breathing, among many other factors

Then the men and women spent four hours simulating office time, sitting at a desk and reading or working at a computer.

During one of these sessions, they never rose unless they had to visit the bathroom, which was close by.

During another visit, they were directed to get up every 30 minutes and move onto a treadmill set up next to their desks. They then walked for two minutes at whatever pace felt comfortable, with an average, leisurely speed of about two miles an hour.

In a final session, they left their chairs only after two hours, but then walked on the treadmills for eight minutes at the same gentle pace.

Scientists tracked the blood flow to their brains just before and during each walking break, as well as immediately after the four hours were over. They also rechecked people’s carbon dioxide levels during those times.

As they had expected, brain blood flow dropped when people sat for four continuous hours. The decline was small but noticeable by the end of the session.

It was equally apparent when people broke up their sitting after two hours, although blood flow rose during the actual walking break. It soon sank again, the ultrasound probes showed, and was lower at the end of that session than at its start.

But brain blood flow rose slightly when the four hours included frequent, two-minute walking breaks, the scientists found.

Interestingly, none of these changes in brain blood flow were dictated by alterations in breathing and carbon dioxide levels, the scientists also determined. Carbon dioxide levels had remained steady before and after each session.

So something else about sitting and moving was affecting the movement of blood to the brain.

Of course, this study was small and short-term and did not look into whether the small declines in blood flow to people’s brains while they sat impaired their ability to think.

It also was not designed to tell us whether any impacts on the brain from hours of sitting could accumulate over time or if they are transitory and wiped away once we finally do get up from our desks for the day.

But the results do provide one more reason to avoid sitting for long, uninterrupted stretches of time, says Sophie Carter, a doctoral student at Liverpool John Moores University, who led the study.

They also offer the helpful information that breaks can be short but should be recurrent.

“Only the frequent two-minute walking breaks had an overall effect of preventing a decline in brain blood flow,” she says.

So consider setting your computer or phone to beep at you every half-hour and get up then, she suggests. Stroll down the hall, take the stairs to visit a restroom a floor above or below your own, or complete a few easy laps around your office.

Your brain just might thank you years from now, when you’re no longer tied to that office chair.



This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

Happy Children Do Chores

Happy Children Do Chores

Children should do chores. That’s a controversial premise, though not everyone will admit it. A few parents will declare outright that their children are “too busy for chores” or that “their job is school.” Many more of us assign chores, or say we believe in them, but the chores just don’t get done.

That’s a problem. For starters, chores are good for kids. Being a part of the routine work of running a household helps children develop an awareness of the needs of others, while at the same time contributing to their emotional well-being. Children who consider themselves necessary to the family are less likely to feel adrift in a world where everyone wants to feel needed.

One small longitudinal study, done over a period of 25 years, found that the best predictor for young adults’ success in their mid-20s was whether they participated in household tasks at age 3 or 4. Those early shared responsibilities extended to a sense of responsibility in other areas of their lives.

I don’t want to make too much of a small study, and there’s really no need. All that the research in this area does is confirm what we already know.

Children who help more at home feel a larger sense of obligation and connectedness to their parents, and that connection helps them weather life’s stressful moments — in other words, it helps them be happier. Their help, even when it’s less than gracious, helps their parents be happier, too.

But for all that their help matters, to us and to them, few kids are doing much around the house at all. In a survey of 1,001 American adults, 75 percent said they believed regular chores made kids “more responsible” and 63 percent said chores teach kids “important life lessons.” Yet while 82 percent reported having had regular chores growing up, only 56 percent of those with children said they required them to do chores.

We believe in chores. We talk a good game. But when we look honestly at who’s doing what in our kitchens, laundry rooms and bathrooms, many of us (including me) struggle to do what it takes to get kids to help at home.

Between 2001 and 2005 a team of researchers from U.C.L.A.’s Center on the Everyday Lives of Families recorded 1,540 hours of footage of 32 middle-class, dual-earner families with at least two children going about their business in Los Angeles. They found that the parents did most of the housework and intervened quickly when the kids had trouble completing a task. Children in 22 families made it a practice to ignore or resist their parents’ requests for help. In eight families, the parents didn’t actually ask children to do much of anything. That leaves two families in which kids meaningfully helped out. (One of the young researchers involved called working on the study “the very purest form of birth control ever devised.”)

I asked 1,050 parents an open-ended question: What do you least like about parenting? The most common answer by far was “discipline,” which included enforcing chores and other responsibilities. Other answers: “Enforcing the rules, especially about household chores”; the challenges of “chores and disciplining a child”; and having to nag kids to do simple chores. We may think our children should do chores, but we really don’t want to have to make them.

And yet, when researchers ask parents about what qualities they care most about fostering in their children, almost all respond by saying they are deeply invested in raising caring, ethical children, and most say they see these moral qualities like these as more important than academic or career achievements.

But many kids seem to be getting a different message. Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist, and colleagues surveyed more than 10,000 students from 33 middle and high schools around the country and found that almost 80 percent said they valued their own happiness and achievement over caring for others. Most thought their parents would agree.

“Our interviews and observations over the last several years also suggest that the power and frequency of parents’ messages about achievement and happiness often drown out their messages about concern for others,” Dr. Weissbourd said.

We can do better. Although household chores seem like a small thing, the subtle but pervasive message of requiring them isn’t small at all. Requiring a high schooler to contribute to the family well-being and the smooth running of the household before turning his attention to his books conveys the value you place on that contribution.

Sports and homework are not get-out-of-chores-free cards. The goal, after all, is not to raise children we can coddle into the Ivy League. The goal is to raise adults who can balance a caring role in their families and communities with whatever lifetime achievement goals they choose. Chores teach that balance. They’re not just chores — they’re life skills.

Persuaded? Then you’ll be looking, now, at the end of this article, for some golden advice on getting your children to step up. You might be worried that there aren’t enough words left here to encompass all you’re going to need to learn to make this happen. Is there another page perhaps? A link to click to make the magic happen?

There is not — because unfortunately, getting children to do chores is an incredibly simple two-step process: insist, and persist, until the chore is done.

Accept no excuses. Don’t worry if you must repeat yourself again and again. If you’re spending more time getting the child to do this job than it would take to do it yourself, then you’re doing it right. Getting children to do chores without nagging — that’s an entirely separate endeavor. Right now the goal is the chore.

Can an allowance help? Maybe. But if you’re trying to teach kids to share the responsibility of a home, paying them for routine chores is not the right message. After all, no one pays you to unload your own dishwasher, and no one ever will.

The good news is that children whose families have established an expectation that they will contribute to the workings of the household do just that. There are 7-year-olds in the suburbs who do the laundry, just as there are 5-year-olds in the Amazon who help harvest papayas. In our house, the kids clear their dishes, feed the animals, clean the kitchen after dinner and take out the trash. I’ve found they may not whistle while they work; they may require near-constant reminders; they will almost certainly not do the job to your standards without years of training, but children can and will do the work if you require it of them.

And in another 20 years, they might even thank you for it.


This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today

How You Felt About Gym Class May Impact Your Exercise Habits Today

Think for a moment about your school gym classes.

Did you just grin with fond reminiscence or reflexively shudder?

A revealing new study suggests that these disparate responses to memories of physical education classes are both common and consequential.

How we felt during gym classes years or decades ago may shape how we feel about exercise today and whether we choose to be physically active, the study finds. The result may have implications for our understanding of exercise motivation and also for how we should introduce our children to sports and movement.

About two-thirds of adults in the Western world rarely if ever exercise, health statistics tell us.

There are many reasons so many of us are sedentary, but most behavioral scientists agree that our attitudes about exercise play a defining role. If we expect exercise to be fun and enjoyable, we often will exercise. If not, we won’t.

How we develop these beliefs about physical activity has been unclear, though.

So a group of scientists at Iowa State University in Ames began to wonder recently whether our feelings about moving might have roots in gym classes, which are often the first introduction many of us have to formal exercise.

To find out, they created a specialized and lengthy online questionnaire that asked people to ruminate on and rate their memories of gym class and how they felt about exercise now, using an elaborate numerical scale.

The questionnaire also asked people about their physical activity habits today and how much time they spent in motion or in a chair, especially on weekends.

Perhaps most compelling, the online form invited them to describe, in their own words, their single best or worst memory from a P.E. class and write about it in as much detail as they chose.

The researchers posted the questionnaire on a website devoted to academic studies and invited anyone interested to complete the form.

They wound up with responses from more than a thousand men and women aged between 18 and 40.

Completing the form seems to have been cathartic for these respondents, given the depth and specificity of many of their responses.

People’s memories of gym class turned out to be in fact surprisingly “vivid and emotionally charged,” the researchers write in the study, which was published this month in the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine.

And those memories had long shadows, affecting people’s exercise habits years later.

The most consistent associations were between unpleasant memories of P.E. classes and lingering resistance to exercise years later, the researchers found. People who had not enjoyed gym class as children tended to report that they did not expect to like exercise now and did not plan to exercise in the coming days.

People who had found pleasure in gym class, on the other hand, were more likely to report that they expected exercise to be enjoyable and that they were active on weekends.

The reasons people gave for enjoying gym — or not — were also telling. Many said that they had hated being chosen late or last for sports teams, or felt embarrassed about bumbling sports performances.

Quite a few also reported discomfort undressing in front of other students, and some described bullying and insults, including from gym teachers.

Many also said they had dreaded the fitness tests that are common in P.E. programs.

Of course, some people harbored pleasant memories of gym classes, often involving athletic success and competence.

“It was a bit surprising just how strong people’s memories were” of their P.E. classes, says Matthew Ladwig, a graduate student at Iowa State University who conducted the study with Panteleimon Ekkekakis and Spyridoula Vazou.

“For some of them, the classes were two or three decades in the past, but they had not forgotten,” he says, and their memories apparently continued to color their attitudes toward exercise today.

The people involved in this study, though, were a self-chosen group who happened to see the questionnaire, so their responses may not be typical of everyone’s. The results also rely on memories and recall, which can be unreliable. And the findings may have been influenced by reverse causation, meaning that unathletic young people disliked gym class and grew up to be sedentary because they were not athletic, and not because they did not like P.E.

But the results do remind us that how we feel about exercise is important in prompting us to move or remain still and that, in order to instill positive attitudes toward exercise, we may want to rethink some of the emphases in school-based physical education programs, Mr. Ladwig says.

If sports are involved, “choose teams randomly,” he says, and, for younger children, de-emphasize competition altogether, promoting activities like dancing or yoga instead.

Consider, too, downplaying frequent fitness testing, which demoralized so many study respondents, he says.

Maybe also offer children more options, including unconventional ones. “Gardening is physical activity and some kids might love it a lot more than team sports,” he says.

“It would be great,” he concludes, “if P.E. classes could teach kids that moving is fun.”


This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

Distracted? Work Harder!

Distracted? Work Harder!

When it comes to focusing at work, there is no shortage of scapegoats to blame for our wandering minds. Social media, the ever-churning news cycle, chats with colleagues — these distractions can lead to a working state of mind that is far from focused. But there’s one possible cause of frequent distraction we don’t often consider: Our work isn’t complex enough, and there isn’t enough of it.

This idea isn’t a popular one, especially with those who feel they’re already working at capacity. That’s a growing number of us these days, when busyness — at work and at home — is seen as a kind of status symbol. But this busyness is often a guise for something else: We procrastinate by doing mindless, distracting tasks that make us feel productive, but in reality accomplish little.

Can you change this innate human behavior? Yes, but you may need to take on more work, and work on stuff that’s a little harder.

Complex tasks demand more of our working memory and attention, meaning we have less mental capacity remaining to wander to the nearest stimulating distraction. In his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that we’re most likely to enter into that state of total work immersion when the challenge of completing a task is roughly equal to our ability to complete it. We get bored when our skills greatly exceed the demands of our work — such as when we do mindless data entry for several hours. And we feel anxious when the demands of a task exceed our skills — as when we’re unprepared to give a presentation. Understanding your skill level and skill set, and pairing those abilities with a worthy task, will make you more likely to be fully engaged in your work.

Consciously taking on a greater number of complex projects is a powerful way to enter a mental state I call hyperfocus — an attentional mode in which one task consumes your complete attention. Your mind wanders less often in hyperfocus because you’re more engaged. That means you’re also more productive.

Besides questioning the complexity of individual tasks, it’s worth reflecting on whether you have enough work to do in general. If not, you’re inviting distraction.

Think back to your last tight deadline. Did that timeline offer the luxury of tending to unproductive distractions like scanning the news and refreshing Twitter? Probably not. Yet, on nondeadline days, it can feel impossible to focus on the task at hand.

In productivity circles, this phenomenon is known as Parkinson’s law. The idea is that our workload tends to expand to fit the time available for its completion. Small tasks that should take two hours to complete will take an entire workday if we have that time available. Distractions are to blame for this time trap.

The research surrounding attention suggests that our minds are biologically wired to focus on anything that’s novel, pleasurable or threatening — and distractions can be an enticing cocktail of all three. This is one of the reasons I recommend taming distractions in advance, and there are many tactics and tools to help you do this: downloading a distraction-blocking application for your computer, putting your phone in Do Not Disturb mode or just leaving it in another room can help.

Once we’ve removed distractions, we’re forced to face our work — and it’s often only then that we discover how much, or how little, we truly have on our plate. One hour spent hyperfocusing distraction-free can be worth an entire afternoon of distracted work.

Since I am a productivity expert, some assume I’ve mastered distraction. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A few years ago, I finished writing an 80,000-word manuscript on a tight deadline. But after I handed it in, I continued to be just as busy, even though I had substantially less work. My remaining projects expanded to fit the time I had available. I logged into my social media accounts when I should have been working. I checked new emails constantly. And I agreed to attend meetings I didn’t need to be a part of in the first place. I felt guilty when I wasn’t busy, and I alleviated this guilt by filling my time with busywork.

Later I realized this guilt came from the fact that I was working without intent. Intention is the key to productivity — when we have more to do than time to do it in, choosing what we do ahead of time becomes essential. Once I’d tamed the busywork, I realized there was still space for meaningful work, and I took on more complex tasks, including thinking about the book that inspired this article.

Here’s an exercise: Take a few days to assess roughly how much of your time you spend on unproductive busywork, and how difficult it is to become engaged in individual projects. At the same time, reflect on your energy levels. Busywork can be a sign you need a rest; when your mental stamina is low, your mind gravitates to the easiest thing on your plate.

But if you’re still falling victim to distraction, consider the possibility that you might need to work harder — and smarter — on projects that will both fill your days and enrich your life.




This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

Is the Paleo Diet Right for You?

Is the Paleo Diet Right for You?

It seems these days that every third person I meet is either already on the “Paleo” diet or planning to try it. Their goals are either weight loss or better health, but certainly not to save the planet.

The main premise of the Paleo diet: If the cave men didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either. But is this sound nutritional advice?

Let’s start with three basic facts:

1. There is no such thing as “a” Paleo diet. The Paleolithic era lasted 2.5 million years and involved different and continually evolving populations with a wide dietary range determined by climate, geography, season and availability.

2. Human beings today and the composition of the foods they eat are not the same as they were in Paleo time. Genetic changes and breeding have resulted in very different organisms for both.

3. There have been no studies of large groups of people who have followed the currently popular versions of the Paleo diet for decades to assess their long-term health effects.

Keep in mind that the life expectancy of people before the advent of agriculture 15,000 years ago rarely reached or exceeded 40, so their risk of developing the so-called diseases of civilization is unknown.

There is one basic premise of the Paleo diet that could benefit everyone’s health: Avoid all foods that are packaged and processed. That said, consider a daily menu of 2,200 calories suggested in a popular book on how to eat like a cave man.

Breakfast: 12 oz. broiled salmon, 1-3/4 cups cantaloupe

Lunch: 3 oz. broiled lean pork, 4-1/2 cups salad dressed only with lemon juice.

Dinner: 8 oz. lean sirloin tip roast, 3 cups steamed broccoli, 4-1/2 cups salad (again, no oil, though some versions of the diet include olive oil), 1 cup strawberries.

Snacks: ½ orange, ¾ cup carrots, 1 cup celery.

With so many vegetables and fruits, the diet does contain plenty of fiber and most essential vitamins and minerals. Despite a few serious nutritional deficiencies like calcium and vitamin D from the lack of dairy foods spurned by Paleo enthusiasts, it sounds healthy enough, as long as your kidneys can handle so much protein.

But is it practical? How many people trying to get the kids off to school in the morning and themselves ready for work will take the time to broil salmon? What will they do when they dine out, especially in someone else’s home? And most important of all, can they stay on the diet indefinitely and live happily without a piece of bread, cracker or, heaven forfend, a serving of ice cream?

And not all Paleolithic diets are equally nourishing. Those who choose the ancestors of the Inuits as their guide would be eating mostly meats and seafood and few if any fruits and vegetables, which grow poorly in the Arctic. As Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota and author of “Paleofantasy,” told Nutrition Action three years ago, the fact that people like the Inuits can adapt to a diet with little plant food “doesn’t mean they should live that way if they have a choice.”

I also wonder whether Paleo diners faced with currently available choices will stick to lean animal foods (grass-fed meats, skinless poultry, etc.), or would they be tempted to choose more succulent, fattier, more caloric cuts like brisket, burgers and pork ribs. Even worse, they might select processed meats like bacon (allowed on some Paleo diet lists) and sausages that have been linked to an increased risk of cancer and heart disease. Would they succumb to using butter and salt to enhance the flavor of steamed vegetables?

As I see it, a Mediterranean-style diet, now promoted by most dietitians and researchers who study the effects of what we eat, is far easier to incorporate into modern lives with minimal risk to lasting health. It is also better balanced nutritionally and a whole lot tastier.

The Mediterranean diet features only small portions of animal foods and depends more on plant proteins like beans and peas. It includes olive oil and other monounsaturated fats. It is more varied, less expensive, less taxing on the environment, and easier to fit into the demands of life as it is lived today.

Several short-term studies among small groups of people (often with no control groups) suggest that the Paleo diet is more effective than the Mediterranean approach at promoting weight loss and reducing risk factors for Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. Still, my vote goes for the more flexible and far more thoroughly researched Mediterranean diet.

I can offer a real-world testimonial. I was recently a speaker on a weeklong New York Times Journeys Mediterranean cruise on a small luxurious ship with four dining areas and 24-hour room service. I ate plenty — three deliciously satisfying meals prepared under the direction of an Italian chef. I enjoyed a nightly cocktail hour, a glass of wine with dinner and gelato for dessert. (Full disclosure, I also walked the deck for an hour and swam for half an hour every day, in addition to walking onshore and up and down the ship’s stairs.) And I came home weighing not a half-pound more than when I left.

A popular claim of Paleo dieters, among others, is that we are the only mammals that drink milk after weaning, which is true. Many people lose the ability to digest the lactose in milk in early childhood. On the other hand, Dr. Zuk pointed out, many others have evolved a lifelong ability to produce the lactose-converting enzyme lactase, a change that has occurred during the last 5,000 to 7,000 years and is but one example of how humans can and have changed, and rather quickly, since Paleo days.

How to Read a Food Label

And while it is wise (consistent with the Paleo diet) to eat far fewer starches, especially white flour and refined grains that our bodies quickly convert to sugar, Dr. Zuk noted that people have continued to evolve genes for amylase, the enzyme that breaks down starches in saliva and the small intestine.

It is also true that our microbiome — the billions of organisms that reside in our guts and elsewhere — is vastly different now than in Paleo times and affects how our bodies process what we eat.

Finally, there remains one other critical aspect of Paleolithic populations that is vastly different from how most Americans live today. Paleo people were hunter-gatherers and spent most of their waking hours walking and running around in search of food, with additional time and effort spent preparing it for consumption.

If you’re willing to do all that, go for it.



This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later.

Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later.

For parents who want to encourage their daughters in STEM subjects, it’s crucial to remember this: Math is the sine qua non.

You and your daughter can have fun throwing eggs off a building and making papier-mâché volcanoes, but the only way to create a full set of options for her in STEM is to ensure she has a solid foundation in math. Math is the language of science, engineering and technology. And like any language, it is best acquired through lengthy, in-depth practice.

But for girls, this can be trickier than it looks. This is because many girls can have a special advantage over boys — an advantage that can steer them away from this all-important building block.

A large body of research has revealed that boys and girls have, on average, similar abilities in math. But girls have a consistent advantage in reading and writing and are often relatively better at these than they are at math, even though their math skills are as good as the boys’. The consequence? A typical little boy can think he’s better at math than language arts. But a typical little girl can think she’s better at language arts than math. As a result, when she sits down to do math, she might be more likely to say, “I’m not that good at this!” She actually is just as good (on average) as a boy at the math — it’s just that she’s even better at language arts.

Of course, it’s hard to know what’s taking place in the minds of babes. But studies revealing developmental differences between boys’ versus girls’ verbal abilities alongside developmental similarities in boys’ and girls’ math abilities — combined with studies that show that among girls, self-perceived ability affects academic performance — seem to indicate that something like the above dynamic might be going on.

Unfortunately, thinking you’re not very good at something can be a quick path to disliking and avoiding it, even if you do have natural ability. You can begin to avoid practicing it, because to your mind, that practice is more painful than learning what comes more easily. Not practicing, in turn, transforms what started out as a mere aversion into a genuine lack of competence. Unfortunately, the way math is generally taught in the United States — which often downplays practice in favor of emphasizing conceptual understanding — can make this vicious circle even worse for girls.

It’s important to realize that math is, to some extent, like playing a musical instrument. But the instrument you play is your own internal neural apparatus.

When we learn to play an instrument — say, the guitar — it’s obvious that simply understanding how a chord is constructed isn’t the equivalent of being able to play the chord. Guitar teachers know intuitively that the path to success and creativity at the guitar is to practice until the foundational patterns are deeply ingrained. The word “rote” has a bad rap in modern-day learning. But the reality is that rote practice, by which I mean routine practice that keeps the focus on what comes harder for you, plays an important role. The foundational patterns must be ingrained before you can begin to be creative.

Math is like that, too. As the researcher K. Anders Ericsson has shown, becoming an expert at anything requires the development of neural patterns that are acquired through much practice and repetition. Understanding is part of acquiring expertise, but it certainly isn’t all. But today’s “understanding-centered” approach to learning math, combined with efforts to make the subject more “fun” by avoiding drill and practice, shortchanges children of the essential process of instilling the neural patterns they need to be successful. And it may be girls that suffer most.

All American students could benefit from more drilling: In the international PISA test, the United States ranks near the bottom among the 35 industrialized nations in math. But girls especially could benefit from some extra required practice, which would not only break the cycle of dislike-avoidance-further dislike, but build confidence and that sense of, “Yes, I can do this!” Practice with math can help close the gap between girls’ reading and math skills, making math seem like an equally good long-term study option. Even if she ultimately chooses a non-STEM career, today’s high-tech world will mean her quantitative skills will still come in handy.

All learning isn’t — and shouldn’t be — “fun.” Mastering the fundamentals is why we have children practice scales and chords when they’re learning to play a musical instrument, instead of just playing air guitar. It’s why we have them practice moves in dance and soccer, memorize vocabulary while learning a new language and internalize the multiplication tables. In fact, the more we try to make all learning fun, the more we do a disservice to children’s abilities to grapple with and learn difficult topics. As Robert Bjork, a leading psychologist, has shown, deep learning involves “desirable difficulties.” Some learning just plain requires effortful practice, especially in the initial stages. Practice and, yes, even some memorization are what allow the neural patterns of learning to take form.

Take it from someone who started out hating math and went on to become a professor of engineering: Do your daughter a favor — give her a little extra math practice each day, even if she finds it painful. In the long run, she’ll thank you for it. (And, by the way: the same applies to your son.)


This article was originally published in The New York Times.  Read the original article.

Language Gene Dethroned

Language Gene Dethroned

The gene FOXP2, known to be important to language ability, has not undergone strong selection in humans over the past few hundred thousand years, a new genomic analysis finds. The results, published yesterday (August 2) in Cell, overturn those of a 2002 study that found evidence of a rapid and recent spread of a FOXP2 variant through human populations.

Defects in FOXP2 were discovered in a family with multiple members who had speech impairments, and the gene became known for its importance in language ability. By appearing to show that speech-friendly variants of the gene had swept through the human population relatively recently, the 2002 study fed a popular idea that the gene was key to the evolution of language and for setting Homo sapiens apart from other animals. Subsequent studies have found “human” FOXP2 variants in Neanderthals and Denisovans, however.

With the release of the new results, “It’s good that it is now clear there is actually no sweep signal at FOXP2,” Wolfgang Enard of Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany, a coauthor of the 2002 study, tells Nature.

Enard and his coauthors based their original study on just 20 people, Nature notes, a small number of whom had African ancestry. The new analysis used much larger, more diverse datasets, and found no evidence of recent selection pressure on FOXP2. (The results were inconclusive for signs of selection prior to 200,000 years ago.) The authors of the new paper suggest that the 2002 study’s contradictory results may be explained by its sample’s small size and lack of diversity.

“If you’re asking a question about the evolution of humans as a species,” Elizabeth Atkinson, a population geneticist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and a coauthor of the new paper, tells Nature, “you really do need to include a diverse set of people.”

Take a Vacation From Exercise? Your Body May Not Thank You

Take a Vacation From Exercise? Your Body May Not Thank You

At the height of summer, naps at the beach can be alluring, and many of us may find ourselves tempted to take prolonged vacations from exercise.

But two new, admonitory studies involving both older and younger adults who temporarily cut back on their physical activity indicate that the metabolic consequences of not moving much for a few weeks can be pervasive and persistent, lingering to some extent even after people start moving around normally again.

Physical activity is, of course, good for us and our metabolisms. Among other effects, contracting muscles burn blood sugar as fuel and, in response to signals from the hormone insulin, also store some of it for future use. Over the long term, these conditions help our bodies to stave off soaring blood sugar, insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.

But what happens when, as a result of choices or circumstances, we do not exercise or move around much for a period of time?

In some past studies with healthy, active young people, often college students, the consequences have been swift but reversible. When these volunteers have taken to their beds and chairs for days on end in the interest of science, they often have developed heightened blood sugar and some early symptoms of insulin resistance.

But within a day or two of returning to their normal activities, their metabolisms usually stabilized and blood sugar and insulin levels dropped.

Many of us, though, are not robust, young college students, and whether the impacts of becoming inactive, even for a short period of time, are likely to be as ephemeral for us has been less clear.

So for one of the new studies, which was published in June in Diabetologia, researchers at the University of Liverpool in England and other institutions asked 45 adult men and women to abruptly start sitting more.

The volunteers had previously been active, walking for more than 10,000 steps on most days, according to monitors that they wore for several days at the study’s start. They also had been metabolically healthy, testing showed, and free from diabetes, although some had near relatives with the condition.

During the study, the volunteers simply stopped moving much, cutting their daily steps to below 2,000 and sitting for more than three and a half additional hours each day, a routine that they continued for two weeks.

The researchers then rechecked their metabolisms and body compositions and asked them to return to their former activity levels for another two weeks, after which the tests were repeated.

The results proved to be consistent if worrisome. The volunteers almost all had developed what the scientists called “metabolic derangements” during their two weeks of being still. Their blood sugar levels had risen, insulin sensitivity declined, cholesterol profiles become less healthy, and they had lost a little muscle mass in their legs while gaining fat around their abdomens.

Thankfully, most of these derangements were reversed once the men and women became active again.

But for unknown reasons, a few of the volunteers did not return to quite the same level of exercise they had engaged in before. They now completed fewer minutes of vigorous activity each week than previously and had some slight but lasting symptoms of insulin resistance, even after two weeks of moving normally.

The consequences of sudden inactivity were more severe and, in their way, poignant in the other new study, which was published in July in The Journals of Gerontology.

It focused on overweight people past age 65 who already were at risk of developing diabetes because they had high blood sugar. But they otherwise were healthy and active, walking about 7,000 or 8,000 steps each day.

Now, as in the other study, they sat, reducing their steps to below 1,000 a day for two weeks, after which, for a final two weeks, they moved about normally.

Like the adults in the other study, these older volunteers quickly developed worse blood sugar control during their two weeks of barely moving. Insulin resistance climbed. Some developed changes in muscle tissue indicating that they might soon begin to lose muscle mass, and a few had to be removed from the study because they had edged into full-blown Type 2 diabetes after becoming inactive.

For most of the men and women who remained in the experiment, their undesirable metabolic changes were not fully reversed after two weeks of moving about again.

The upshot of these findings is that a few weeks of inactivity could leave us less well, perhaps for a prolonged period of time, with the health consequences amplified by increasing age, says Chris McGlory, a research fellow in kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada, who led the study of older people.

“It’s not uncommon for older people to become sick or injured and wind up hospitalized or housebound for several weeks, or for someone who’s younger to just decide to take a few weeks off” from regular exercise and physical activity, he says.

But “if it’s at all possible,” he says, “don’t stop moving.”

Talk to a physical therapist about activity options if you have been injured or are hospitalized, he says. And instead of taking a vacation from exercise, consider perhaps building exercise into your vacation. The beach can be as enticing for a stroll as a snooze.


Food cravings peak twice nightly, in countries all around the world

Food cravings peak twice nightly, in countries all around the world

Do you ever find yourself scouring the web for pizza delivery services to satisfy those late-night cravings? You’re not alone: A new study reveals hungry web surfers around the world all start searching for food-related information at two peak times, 7 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Wanting to see whether they could spot trends in human behavior based on a massive database of Google searches, a team of scientists analyzed hourly food-related queries from five countries: the United States, Canada, India, Australia, and the United Kingdom. For two 1-week periods, they looked for general food-related keywords such as “pizza delivery” or “Chinese delivery” and country-specific delivery companies like India’s “Swiggy” and “Just Eat,” which serves the United Kingdom and Australia. They also analyzed 5 years of data to see whether they could discover seasonal trends.

The two spikes in food-related searches occurred across all countries, keywords, days of the week, and seasons, the researchers report today in Royal Society Open Science. They say the peaks likely represent two different groups of people searching for nighttime nourishment, one older (the early birds) and one younger (the night owls). Another hypothesis is that the two groups are simply running on different internal body clocks, which affects when they want their evening calories.

Further studies are needed to reveal the real answer. In the meantime, you might want to listen to your guts and keep your laptop handy for when it’s time to start searching.