The science of ‘hitting the wall’ in sports

May 2, 2017

Runners, swimmers, and cyclists are familiar with the phenomenon of “hitting the wall” when the connection between brain and body feels like it’s been lost: You know that you’re still trying to move, but doing it feels more conceptual than physical. In Cell Metabolism on May 2, researchers show in mice the physiological basis for why this phenomenon occurs. Their research also found that training is not the only way to enhance endurance–it can also be achieved using a small molecule to stimulate a pathway that was already known to be activated by training.

“It turns out that ‘hitting the wall’ happens when your brain can no longer get enough glucose. At that point, you’re toast,” says co-corresponding author Ronald Evans, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Director of the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute. “We previously believed that training improves endurance because it allows the muscles to more effectively burn fat as an energy source.”

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Do weekend warriors reap any health benefits?

January 10, 2017

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise spread out during the week. This could be accomplished by walking 30 minutes five days a week, but for many people even that modest amount of time just isn’t there during the work week. But can people get a health benefit by working up a sweat only on the weekends?

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NFL player health: The potential conflicting role of club doctors

November 22, 2016

How can we ensure that National Football League players receive excellent health care they can trust from providers who are as free from conflicts of interest as realistically possible? The lead article in a new Hastings Center Report special report concludes that conflicts of interest are inherent to the structure of the relationship between players and club doctors and that these conflicts pose a threat to players’ health. The article proposes structural changes to reduce these problems.

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Top-level football refs are better at spotting fouls because of enhanced visual perception

October 31, 2016

Top-level professional football referees have enhanced visual perception, which means that they are better at spotting foul play and issuing the correct disciplinary action than lower-level referees, according to new research published in the journal Cognitive Research.

The researchers, from Belgium and the UK, had 39 football referees from the top and lower leagues in Belgium watch staged videos of fouls being committed from the point-of-view of a referee on the football pitch. Eye-tracking technology was used to assess their visual-search behaviour – that is the location that the referees’ eyes fixated on and for how long. Read more

Better detection of concussion in young football players

November 26, 2015

Researcher Christian Duval, PhD, and his team have developed a new, simple and non-invasive approach to create a biomechanical and cognitive profile of football players and more quickly and accurately detect concussions in these individuals. Christian Duval and his post-doctoral student Hung Nguyen, PhD, work at the Research Centre of the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, which is affiliated with the University of Montreal. They presented their preliminary research findings at the International Congress on Sport Sciences Research and Technology Support, which was held in Lisbon from November 15 to 17.

For their study, Christian Duval’s team performed a dual-task assessment using simultaneous biomechanical and cognitive tests to evaluate the players every week. Thanks to a markerless motion capture system, this approach let them establish a unique profile for each person in just seven minutes and detect signs of concussion in a player before the medical team could. Developing such a fast and effective test is critical, as repeated impact on the young brain over time leaves damage similar to that caused by dementia.

“We had the players walk while avoiding obstacles and while executing cognitive tasks. The combination of these two results established each individual’s personal signature. Our measurements let us quickly detect concussion symptoms that could go unnoticed by health care professionals or by the young athletes themselves. The test we developed also simulates game situations, because in football, players are stimulated both physically and intellectually,” explained Christian Duval.

In a sport in which many concussions go undetected, this approach could help health care professionals to not only better detect these brain injuries but also systematically monitor all players during the season to detect or monitor those who sustain a concussion to determine when they are ready to get back out on the field.

Sochi Winter Olympics ‘cost billions more than estimated’

July 27, 2015

As the International Olympic Committee prepares to choose between Beijing (China) and Almaty (Kazakhstan) as the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, a new report shows that the cost of last year’s Games in Sochi, Russia, has been underestimated by billions of dollars.

Ahead of the decision on 31 July, a study by Dr Martin Müller of the University of Birmingham finds that:

 

  • The Sochi Games cost $16bn in sports-related expenditure alone – more than twice the official figure of $7bn 
  • Total costs, including capital costs, amount to $55bn 
  • Sochi is the most expensive Olympics ever in terms of cost per event and the second most expensive, after London, in terms of sports-related costs 
  • Russia’s goal of developing Sochi into a global resort has failed 
  • $1.2bn per year of follow-up investment is required to maintain the underused infrastructure (including transport networks, sporting venues and hotels) 
  • Public opinion towards the Sochi Games and Russia as host has deteriorated over time

Dr Müller said: ‘The two most striking results from this study are, firstly, that when everything is accounted for, just the sports-related costs of the Sochi Games amount to $16bn – more than twice the official figure – and, secondly, that more than a billion dollars per year is still required to maintain the barely used infrastructure and subsidise the tourist industry.

‘The main legacy of the Games is oversized infrastructure at inflated prices, paid for almost exclusively by the public. While this applies to many mega-events elsewhere – particularly in developing economies – the extent of expenditure and underutilisation in Russia is unparalleled.

‘When counting all the costs associated with the Sochi Winter Olympics – including upgrades of the general infrastructure – we arrive at the stunning figure of $55bn. That’s more than 10% of the annual federal budget of Russia.’

Dr Müller’s study brings together the available information on operational costs, sports-related capital costs, and non-sports-related capital costs relating to the event. It is the first time the Sochi Games have been fully accounted for in this manner. Of the total figure of $55bn, 90% comes from capital costs, including sporting venues, the Olympic village, transport networks, hotels and power supplies.

According to the report, the resort is now hugely overdeveloped for the levels of occupancy it currently experiences, and hotels are struggling to survive. The sporting venues built for the Games are being underused, while the main line of the $10bn railway network sustains just six trains per day in each direction. Additionally, polls show that public opinion towards Russia and the Games declined as the event approached.

Dr Müller, who also has a post at the University of Zurich, said: ‘Russia’s two major goals in hosting the Games were to catapult Sochi into the same league of world-class winter sports resorts as Zermatt, Vail and Whistler, and to present to the outside world a new face of Russia as an open, modern and attractive country.

‘The sobering reality is that they have failed miserably on both counts.

‘In 2018, Russia will host the football World Cup, and despite the intention to reform the planning and management process, costs, cost overruns, and oversized stadia are already a concern.’

Extracurricular sports produce disciplined preteens

July 1, 2015

Regular, structured extracurricular sports seem to help kids develop the discipline they need in order to engage effectively in the classroom, according to a new study led by Linda Pagani of the University of Montreal and its affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital. “We worked with information provided by parents and teachers to compare kindergarteners’ activities with their classroom engagement as they grew up,” Pagani said. “By time they reached the fourth grade, kids who played structured sports were identifiably better at following instructions and remaining focused in the classroom. There is something specific to the sporting environment – perhaps the unique sense of belonging to a team to a special group with a common goal – that appears to help kids understand the importance of respecting the rules and honoring responsibilities.”

Professor Pagani and her colleagues Geneviève Piché and Caroline Fitzpatrick came to their conclusions after reviewing the data on 2,694 children who were born in Quebec between 1997 and 1998. The information was retrieved from the Quebec Longitudinal Study on Child Development, a public data set coordinated by the province’s statistical institute. “Our goal was to answer two questions: firstly, does participation in extracurricular activities in kindergarten predict fourth grade self-discipline, and secondly, do kindergarten self-discipline characteristics predict fourth-grade participation in sports?” Pagani explained. These characteristics encompass things such as classroom engagement, physical aggression, impulsivity and emotional distress.

At kindergarten, when most children in the study were six, teachers filled in questionnaires about their student behaviour and parents were interviewed by phone or in person about their home life. The exercise was repeated four years later. The researchers then analyzed the data by eliminating pre-existing influences such as child’s physical fitness and cognitive abilities, mother’s education, and how well the family unit functioned (asking families to rate, for example, how well they communicate) which could have influenced the results. “Children who were involved in sports at kindergarten, or in fact who were involved in any kind of structured activity, were likely to be involved in teams sports by age ten. However, involvement in unstructured activities at kindergarten had no bearing on the child’s future. Across the board, we found that children who had better behaviour in the kindergarten class were more likely to be involved in sport by age ten,” Pagani said. “Nonetheless, we found that those children who were specifically involved in team sports at kindergarten scored higher in self-regulation by time they reached fourth-grade.”

The researchers believe that sporting activities and attention skills go hand in hand and can be addressed simultaneously in school planning. Their findings could help schools and public health authorities better reach children at risk of insufficient exercise as a way of addressing both the obesity and school drop-out crises at the same time. “Programs to help parents develop their child’s self-regulation skills and the availability of extracurricular sports programs as early as kindergarten could help decrease the risk of kids being left behind,” Pagani said. “We also hope policy makers consider our findings in order to improve access to parks and playgrounds, where children and their families can engage in sporting activities, to improve access to K12 enrichment programs that target self-regulation skills, and to improve the promotion of active schools and communities generally-speaking.”

Concussion in former NFL players related to brain changes later in life, UTSW study finds

May 19, 2015

In the first study of its kind, former National Football League (NFL) players who lost consciousness due to concussion during their playing days showed key differences in brain structure later in life. The hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory, was found to be smaller in 28 former NFL players as compared with a control group of men of similar age and education.

The findings were reported in today’s edition of JAMA Neurology, and they represent the first study to compare the relationship between hippocampal volume, memory performance, and concussion severity.

The study was conducted by a team of neurologists and neuropsychologists from UT Southwestern Medical Center and the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas.

“This is a preliminary study, and there is much more to be learned in the area of concussion and cognitive aging,” said Dr. Munro Cullum, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology and Neurotherapeutics at UT Southwestern, a co-author of the study. “While we found that aging individuals with a history of concussion and loss of consciousness showed smaller hippocampal volumes and lower memory test scores, the good news is that we did not detect a similar relationship among subjects with a history of concussion that did not involve loss of consciousness, which represents the vast majority of concussions,” said Dr. Cullum, who holds the Pam Blumenthal Distinguished Professorship in Clinical Psychology.

Some of the retired NFL players also met criteria for Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a condition that typically affects memory and may lead to dementia. The findings were more pronounced among those who experienced more severe concussions.

The former players ranged from 36 to 79 years old, with a mean age of 58. Twenty-one healthy men of similar age, educational level, and intelligence with no history of concussion or professional football experience served as control subjects.

The results do not explain why the hippocampus was smaller in the athletes who suffered more serious concussions. Some shrinkage is a part of the normal aging process but the reduction is accentuated in MCI and was even more notable in those MCI subjects with a history of concussion accompanied by loss of consciousness. Thus, there appears to be a cumulative effect of concussion history and MCI on hippocampal size and function.

The primary investigator of the study was Dr. John Hart, Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Psychiatry at UT Southwestern, and Medical Science Director and a Professor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas. Dr. Kyle Womack, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, and Psychiatry at UT Southwestern, was a contributing author.

The study was funded by The BrainHealth Institute for Athletes at UT Dallas and UT Southwestern’s Texas Institute for Brain Injury and Repair (TIBIR). Founded in 2014, TIBIR embodies a comprehensive and transformative approach to how brain injuries are prevented and treated.

TIBIR is a state-funded initiative to promote innovative research and education, with the goals of accelerating translation into better diagnosis and improving care for the millions of people who suffer brain injuries each year.

Relying on UT Southwestern’s strengths in basic and translational research, the Institute includes scientists focused on improving the understanding of brain damage at the molecular and cellular level, as well as those seeking to identify new therapeutic opportunities, which could ultimately be delivered in clinical care settings.

How we form habits and change existing ones

August 9, 2014

Much of our daily lives are taken up by habits that we’ve formed over our lifetime. An important characteristic of a habit is that it’s automatic– we don’t always recognize habits in our own behavior. Studies show that about 40 percent of people’s daily activities are performed each day in almost the same situations. Habits emerge through associative learning. “We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals. We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response,” Wendy Wood explains in her session at the American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention.

What are habits?

Wood calls attention to the neurology of habits, and how they have a recognizable neural signature. When you are learning a response you engage your associative basal ganglia, which involves the prefrontal cortex and supports working memory so you can make decisions. As you repeat the behavior in the same context, the information is reorganized in your brain. It shifts to the sensory motor loop that supports representations of cue response associations, and no longer retains information on the goal or outcome. This shift from goal directed to context cue response helps to explain why our habits are rigid behaviors.

There is a dual mind at play, Wood explains. When our intentional mind is engaged, we act in ways that meet an outcome we desire and typically we’re aware of our intentions. Intentions can change quickly because we can make conscious decisions about what we want to do in the future that may be different from the past. However, when the habitual mind is engaged, our habits function largely outside of awareness. We can’t easily articulate how we do our habits or why we do them, and they change slowly through repeated experience. “Our minds don’t always integrate in the best way possible. Even when you know the right answer, you can’t make yourself change the habitual behavior,” Wood says.

Participants in a study were asked to taste popcorn, and as expected, fresh popcorn was preferable to stale. But when participants were given popcorn in a movie theater, people who have a habit of eating popcorn at the movies ate just as much stale popcorn as participants in the fresh popcorn group. “The thoughtful intentional mind is easily derailed and people tend to fall back on habitual behaviors. Forty percent of the time we’re not thinking about what we’re doing,” Wood interjects. “Habits allow us to focus on other things…Willpower is a limited resource, and when it runs out you fall back on habits.”

How can we change our habits?

Public service announcements, educational programs, community workshops, and weight-loss programs are all geared toward improving your day-to-day habits. But are they really effective? These standard interventions are very successful at increasing motivation and desire. You will almost always leave feeling like you can change and that you want to change. The programs give you knowledge and goal-setting strategies for implementation, but these programs only address the intentional mind.

In a study on the “Take 5″ program, 35 percent of people polled came away believing they should eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day. Looking at that result, it appears that the national program was effective at teaching people that it’s important to have 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day. But the data changes when you ask what people are actually eating. Only 11 percent of people reported that they met this goal. The program changed people’s intentions, but it did not overrule habitual behavior.

According to Wood, there are three main principles to consider when effectively changing habitual behavior. First, you must derail existing habits and create a window of opportunity to act on new intentions. Someone who moves to a new city or changes jobs has the perfect scenario to disrupt old cues and create new habits. When the cues for existing habits are removed, it’s easier to form a new behavior. If you can’t alter your entire environment by switching cities– make small changes. For instance, if weight-loss or healthy eating is your goal, try moving unhealthy foods to a top shelf out of reach, or to the back of the freezer instead of in front.

The second principle is remembering that repetition is key. Studies have shown it can take anywhere from 15 days to 254 days to truly form a new habit. “There’s no easy formula for how long it takes,” Wood says. Lastly, there must be stable context cues available in order to trigger a new pattern. “It’s easier to maintain the behavior if it’s repeated in a specific context,” Wood emphasizes. Flossing after you brush your teeth allows the act of brushing to be the cue to remember to floss. Reversing the two behaviors is not as successful at creating a new flossing habit. Having an initial cue is a crucial component.

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Reporters: Please email press@spsp.org if you would like to receive a copy of the presentation for this session.

Wendy Wood, “‪Habits in Everyday Life: How to Form Good Habits and Change Bad Ones‬” Thursday, August 7, 11-11:50 am ET. American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention. Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Pl., NW, Washington, D.C.

jsantisi@spsp.org
202-524-6543
Society for Personality and Social Psychology

Athletes’ fear of failure likely to lead to ‘choke,’ study shows

May 8, 2014

A new study by sports scientists at Coventry University and Staffordshire University shows that anxiety about a competitive situation makes even the most physically active of us more likely to slip-up.

The research, which is set to be presented at the British Psychological Society’s flagship annual conference this week, tested the anticipation and coordination abilities of 18 active and healthy young adults during two sets of identical physical tests – one ostensibly a practice, the other a competition.

In the ‘competitive’ trials, researchers found that the participants’ coincidence anticipation timing (CAT) – or their ability to anticipate and coordinate actions akin to catching a ball or striking a moving object – was significantly worse than in the practice scenarios.

At the same time, participants’ mental (cognitive) anxiety levels were found to be substantially higher during the competitive trials than they were in practice, a likely result of worrying about their performance.

The detrimental effect on anticipation timing was at its most acute during the more physically intensive parts of the competitive trials, but – significantly – was not evident during the practice trials, indicating that cognitive anxiety is a decisive factor in performance failure.

The findings support the predictions of ‘catastrophe theory’ – a theory popular amongst sports coaches and psychologists – which posits that sporting performance will be adversely affected by increased stress and anxiety.

Dr Michael Duncan, lead author of the study and associate head of the Department of Applied Sciences and Health at Coventry University, said:

“Anxiety in a competitive situation, whether sporting or otherwise, is something everyone can relate to. We’re all familiar with what we call ‘somatic’ anxiety, for example butterflies in the tummy which is the body’s response to tension, but this study is chiefly concerned with the effects of cognitive anxieties such as worry or fear of failure.

“Our research indicates that heightened cognitive anxiety, brought on by the competitive scenario, really does affect performance abilities in physically active people – and the same is likely to apply even for trained athletes.

“Where this study differs from anything in the past is that we measured these responses ‘in-event’ rather than after performance, so we’re generating a much more accurate picture of whether catastrophe theory has any value. The results strongly support the theory, which should make for interesting reading for sports professionals and psychologists around the world.”

Dr Duncan et al will be presenting the full findings from their research during the British Psychological Society’s annual conference at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, May 7th – 9th 2014.

alex.roache@coventry.ac.uk
44-024-776-55050
Coventry University

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