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Washington Post’s history of the treadmill

8 Feb

Sunday’s Washington Post tells the story of the treadmill. Fifty million Americans uses treadmills, but I was surprised that so many seem to hate it.

As the weather turns colder, Jen Forman will do what she’s always done to get her runs in: She’ll go to her treadmill in her home, press start and run until she’s done.

And she will hate every moment of it.

I think treadmill time is a great opportunity to learn. I use it to practice foreign languages and listen to podcasts.

Dr. Mirkin: “Sitting Will Not Harm Vigorous Exercisers”

11 Nov

From Dr. Mirkin’s eZine:

Asking people to stand at work, rather than sit, is not good advice because standing-without-moving is no better than sitting, and will make you too tired to exercise vigorously when you are finished working. If you are a vigorous exerciser, standing all day will slow your recovery from your exercise program.

The highly-publicized studies that showed sitting is harmful for exercisers were flawed because they failed to separate casual exercisers from vigorous exercisers. No one has shown that standing up instead of sitting confers any special health benefits, and standing without moving around can cause additional problems such as varicose veins and swollen feet. Contracting muscles circulate extra blood to strengthen your heart and draw sugar from the bloodstream to lower high blood sugar levels. This does not happen when you just stand in one position without moving your muscles

I am not completely convinced, but I think he raises a good point about the failure of the study to consider individual differences in fitness as a confounding variable.



How good is your exercise tracker?

13 Feb

The Journal of the American Medical Association has published a rigorous comparison of several popular exercise trackers:


With the exception of the Nike Fuelband most of the trackers did fairly good job of measuring steps. However, the Digi-walker SW-200 , a less expensive dedicated pedometer, out performed many of the smartphone apps.

I have been very happy with my Omron pedometer. For me, the only drawback is the inability to sync it to statistical software.

But overall, the message seems to be that most exercise trackers will give you a reasonable approximation of how much you exercise.

For more discussion of these findings see this interesting post by Ernesto Ramirez at The Quantified Self.



Treadmill Running Reverses Cognitive Declines

5 Feb

A paper from Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:

“Purpose: This study investigated the effect of treadmill running on cognitive declines in the early and advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in 3xTg-AD mice.

Methods: At 4 months of age, 3xTg-AD mice (N=24) were assigned to control (AD+CON, n=12) or exercise (AD+EX, n=12) group. At 24 months of age, 3xTg-AD mice (N=16) were assigned to AD+CON (n=8) or AD+EX (n=8) group. The AD+EX mice were subjected to treadmill running for 12-week. At each pathologic stage, the background strain mice were included as wild type control (WT+CON, n=8-12).

Results: At the early stage of AD, 3xTg-AD mice had impaired short- and long-term memory based on Morris water maze along with higher cortical A[beta] deposition, higher hippocampal and cortical tau pathology, and lower hippocampal and cortical PSD-95 and synaptophysin. A 12-week treadmill running reversed the impaired cognitive declines and significantly improved the tau pathology along with suppression of the decreased PSD-95 and synaptophysin in the hippocampus and cortex. At the advanced stage of AD, 3xTg-AD mice had impaired short- and long-term memory along with higher levels of A[beta] deposition, soluble A[beta]1-40 and A[beta]1-42, tau pathology, and lower levels of BDNF, PSD-95 and synaptophysin in the hippocampus and cortex. A 12-week treadmill running reversed the impaired cognitive declines and significantly improved the A[beta] and tau pathology along with suppression of the decreased synaptic proteins and BDNF in the hippocampus and cortex.

Conclusion: The current findings suggest that treadmill running provides a non-pharmacologic means to combat cognitive declines due to AD pathology.”



Cardboard standing desk!

15 Oct

I think this is brilliant.


Physicians should prescribe walking

5 Jun

One of the components of my memory improvement plan (to be discussed in my upcoming book) is studying while walking. Even without the cognitive component daily walking has important health benefits, described in the video below:



I walk for an hour every morning, either on my treadmill or outside. I wear a pedometer (more accurate than a fitbit or a smartphone pedometer)  and aim for a total 10,000 steps everyday. A hour of planned walking usually gives me between 6,500 and 7,000 steps, a good start towards the 10,000 goal.

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Seth Roberts on learning while walking

29 Oct

Another interesting post by Seth Roberts about the effects of walking on studying:

“A Chinese friend of mine learned about my discovery that it was much easier to study Chinese while walking on a treadmill than sitting. This led her to buy a treadmill. She began to study English (e.g., GRE vocabulary words) while walking on the treadmill. “It worked very well,” she told me. She found that if she studied words while walking, she could remember them four days later. If she studied them sitting down, she could remember them only a day later”

Learning the Indian alphabet

2 Jul

One of the key messages of this site is big learning in small doses. In this post I want to give you an example of using this principle by explaining how I learned to read the Indian alphabet, more correctly know as Devanagari.

One of the languages I am trying to learn is Sanskrit, the ancient liturgical language of Hinduism. Many of the source texts of both Hinduism and Buddhism are written in this language using the Devanagari script. Here is the word yoga written in Devanagari:


Devanagari is used in many modern Indian languages including Hindi. So my first step was to purchase a set of Hindi script flashcards.

flash pile

The cards show a Devanagari letter (which represents either a vowel sound or a consonant and a vowel sound) and an image that is supposed to be a mnemonic for the letter. The letter in the card pictured above stands for the “ga” sound.

Here is the back of a card

flash card

I did not find the visual mnemonics helpful, indeed they were a nuisance because I wanted the letter to be the cue for remembering, but I solved this problem by placing a card over the bottom half of the card.

fash cover


Rather than try to learn the entire deck at once, I started with only three cards. Each morning, while walking on my treadmill, I would see if I could say the sound of each letter in the small pile. When I could correctly identify the sound of every card in the pile I would add one or two more. I would only add cards when I felt I has mastered the cards in the current pile.

When working with flash cards it is very important shuffle the deck every time you review. This is because of the serial position effect in list learning discovered by  Hermann Ebbinghaus. In learning any list we tend to have better memory for the beginning of the list and the end of the list and poorer memory for the items in the middle. However, we want to remember all the letters equally well and we do not want the order of the cards to be a cue for remembering the letters. So when working with flashcards, shuffle the pack for every review.

Over the course of a couple of months, spending a very few minutes everyday, I learned the basic Devanagari alphabet. I now review the entire deck of flashcards only three times a week just to maintain my skill. If I had tried to learn through intense cramming I think I would have failed, and I certainly would not have retained the information.

If you take a long term perspective and break a big learning task into small steps, you can succeed in mastering seemingly difficult material.


Exercise and the brain

18 Jun

Renee wrote:

“I heard a piece on NPR a week or so ago that the best thing you can do for your brain is to get more exercise!”

While I would shy away from the word “best,” there is little doubt that regular aerobic exercise has substantial cognitive benefits.

Aerobic exercise helps our brains in several ways. First, and, perhaps, foremost, it reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and vascular dementia.

Second, as one study reported:

“These results suggest that cardiovascular fitness is associated with the sparing of brain tissue in aging
humans. Furthermore, these results suggest a strong biological basis for the role of aerobic fitness in maintaining and enhancing central nervous system health and cognitive functioning in older adults.”

In addition, aerobic exercise has been associated with improved memory and increased size of the brain region known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in the consolidation of long term memories.

Finally, exercise has been shown to increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which, in turn, stimulates neuron growth. 

So regular aerobic exercise should be a central part of any memory improvement program. In addition, this research suggests that efforts to cut physical education programs in the schools may be short sighted.

Managing your information diet with Instapaper

16 Jun

Yesterday, I recommended an article from the New Yorker by Susan Orlean. If you’re like me, such on-line recommendations create a dilemma: Do I stop reading the current post and move on to the recommended article, losing my current focus? If I decide not to read the article now, how do I remember to read it later? If, later, I remember that I wanted to read it, how do I find it again?

Attention is a serious problem on the Internet. Every link is a potential distraction. In future blog posts I will explain why attention is central to forming new memories, but for now we can all relate to the experience of following link after link and wondering what happened to the time. We emerge from the rabbit hole with the feeling that we have accomplished nothing and learned little. How can we regain control of our digital life?

One tool that I have used with great success is Instapaper. Instapaper is an app that allows you to save webpages and on-line articles to the cloud and recover them at your convenience on your computer, tablet, or e-reader.

To use Instapaper, first visit the website and sign up for an account.

Screenshot from 2013-06-16 09:28:20

Once you have established an account Instapaper allows you to to put a “Read Later” button on browser. Here is a screenshot of my browser showing the button.

Screenshot from 2013-06-15 19:49:23

Press the button and the article will be saved to the cloud. Download the Instapaper app to your tablet or e-reader and you will be able to recover the article later and read when you can give it the time it deserves. As it turns out I often read my Instapaper articles while walking on the treadmill!

Here is a copy of the Susan Orlean article on my Kindle Fire:


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