Monday, February 1, 2010

Can Vitamin D Improve Your Athletic Performance?

Photo by Patrik Giardino/Getty Images

Can Vitamin D Improve Your Athletic Performance?
By Gretchen Reynolds for the New York Times

When scientists at the Australian Institute of Sport recently decided to check the Vitamin D status of some of that country’s elite female gymnasts, their findings were fairly alarming. Of the 18 gymnasts tested, 15 had levels that were “below current recommended guidelines for optimal bone health,” the study’s authors report. Six of these had Vitamin D levels that would qualify as medically deficient. Unlike other nutrients, Vitamin D can be obtained by exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, as well as through foods or supplements. Of course, female gymnasts are a unique and specialized bunch, not known for the quality or quantity of their diets, or for getting outside much.

But in another study presented at a conference earlier this year, researchers found that many of a group of distance runners also had poor Vitamin D status. Forty percent of the runners, who trained outdoors in sunny Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had insufficient Vitamin D. “It was something of a surprise,” says D. Enette Larson-Meyer, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Wyoming and one of the authors of the study.

Vitamin D is an often overlooked element in athletic achievement, a “sleeper nutrient,” says John Anderson, a professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of North Carolina and one of the authors of a review article published online in May about Vitamin D and athletic performance. Vitamin D once was thought to be primarily involved in bone development. But a growing body of research suggests that it’s vital in multiple different bodily functions, including allowing body cells to utilize calcium (which is essential for cell metabolism), muscle fibers to develop and grow normally, and the immune system to function properly. “Almost every cell in the body has receptors” for Vitamin D, Anderson says. “It can up-regulate and down-regulate hundreds, maybe even thousands of genes,” Larson-Meyer says. “We’re only at the start of understanding how important it is.”

But many of us, it seems, no matter how active and scrupulous we are about health, don’t get enough Vitamin D. Nowadays, “many people aren’t going outside very much,” Johnson says, and most of us
assiduously apply sunscreen and take other precautions when we do. The Baton Rouge runners, for instance, most likely “ran early in the morning or late in the day,” Larson-Meyer says, reducing their chances of heat stroke or sunburn, but also reducing their exposure to sunlight.

Meanwhile, dietary sources of Vitamin D are meager. Cod-liver oil provides a whopping dose. But a glass of fortified milk provides a fraction of what scientists now think we need per day. (A major study published online in the journal Pediatrics last month concluded that more than 60 percent of American children, or almost 51 million kids, have “insufficient” levels of Vitamin D and another 9 percent, or 7.6 million children, are clinically “deficient,” a serious condition. Cases of childhood rickets, a bone disease caused by lack of Vitamin D, have been rising in the U.S. in recent years.)

Although few studies have looked closely at the issue of Vitamin D and athletic performance, those that have are suggestive. A series of strange but evocative studies undertaken decades ago in Russia and Germany, for instance, hint that the Eastern Bloc nations may have depended in part on sunlamps and Vitamin D to produce their preternaturally well-muscled and world-beating athletes. In one of the studies, four Russian sprinters were doused with artificial, ultraviolet light. Another group wasn’t. Both trained identically for the 100-meter dash. The control group lowered their sprint times by 1.7 percent. The radiated runners, in comparison, improved by an impressive 7.4 percent.

More recently, when researchers tested the vertical jumping ability of a small group of adolescent athletes, Larson-Meyer says, “they found that those who had the lowest levels of Vitamin D tended not to jump as high,” intimating that too little of the nutrient may impair muscle power. Low levels might also contribute to sports injuries, in part because Vitamin D is so important for bone and muscle health. In a Creighton University study of female naval recruits, stress fractures were reduced significantly after the women started taking supplements of Vitamin D and calcium.

A number of recent studies also have shown that, among athletes who train outside year-round, maximal oxygen intake tends to be highest in late summer, Johnson says. The athletes, in other words, are fittest in August, when ultraviolet radiation from the sun is near its zenith. They often then experience an abrupt drop in maximal oxygen intake,
beginning as early as September, even thought they continue to train just as hard. This decline coincides with the autumnal lengthening of the angle of sunlight. Less ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth and, apparently, sports performance suffers.

Concerned now about your Vitamin D status? You can learn your status with a simple blood test. An at-home version is available through the Web site of the Vitamin D Council. (Use of the tests is restricted in some states, including New York. See the website for details.) Be sure that any test checks the level of 25(OH)D in your blood. This level “should generally be above 50 nanograms per milliliter,” Larson-Meyer says.

If your levels are low, talk to your doctor about the best response. Sunlight is one easy, if controversial, fix. “Most dermatologists will still tell you that no amount of sun exposure is safe,” Johnson says.

But Larson-Meyer and other Vitamin D researchers aren’t so sure. “There’s no good, scientific evidence that five to thirty minutes of sunlight a few times a week is harmful,” she says.

Or try supplements. “1,000 IU a day and much more for people who are deficient” is probably close to ideal, Larson-Meyer says. This, by the way, is about double the current recommended daily allowance. Most experts anticipate that this allowance will be revised upward soon. Consult with your doctor before beginning supplements. Overdoses of Vitamin D are rare, but can occur.

Finally, stay tuned. “In the next few years, we’re going to be learning much more” about the role of vitamin D in bodily function and sports performance, Larson-Meyer says.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Food, Sex and Giving

Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving
By Nicholas D. Kristof for the New York Times
January 16, 2010

Want to be happier in 2010? Then try this simple experiment, inspired by recent scholarship in psychology and neurology. Which person would you rather be:

Richard is an ambitious 36-year-old white commodities trader in Florida. He’s healthy and drop-dead handsome, lives alone in a house with a pool, and has worked his way through a series of gorgeous women. Richard’s job is stressful, but he spent Christmas in Tahiti. Unencumbered, he also has time to indulge such passions as reading (right now he’s finishing a book called “Half the Sky”), marathon running and writing poetry. In the last few days, he has been composing an elegy about the Haiti earthquake.

Lorna is a 64-year-old black woman in Boston. She’s overweight and unattractive, even after a recent nose job. Lorna is on regular dialysis, but that doesn’t impede her active social life or babysitting her grandchildren. A retired school assistant, she is close to her 67-year-old husband and is much respected in her church for directing the music committee and the semiannual blood drive. Lorna believes in tithing (giving 10 percent of her income to charity or the church) and in the last few days has organized a church drive to raise $10,000 for earthquake relief in Haiti.

I adapted those examples from ones that Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, develops in his fascinating book, “The Happiness Hypothesis.” His point is that while most of us might prefer to trade places with Richard, Lorna is probably happier.

Men are no happier than women, and people in sunny areas no happier than people in chillier climates. The evidence on health is complex, but even chronic health problems (like those requiring dialysis) may have surprisingly little long-term effect on happiness, because we adjust to them. Beautiful people aren’t happier than ugly people, although cosmetic surgery does seem to leave patients feeling brighter. Whites are happier than blacks, but only very slightly. And young people are actually a bit less happy than older folks, at least up to age 65.

Lorna has a few advantages over Richard. She has less stress and is respected by her peers — factors that make us feel good. Happiness is tied to volunteering and to giving blood, and people with religious faith tend to be happier than those without. A solid marriage is linked to happiness, as is participation in social networks. And one study found that people who focus on achieving wealth and career advancement are less happy than those who focus on good works, religion or spirituality, or friends and family.

“Human beings are in some ways like bees,” Professor Haidt said. “We evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don’t do as well when freed from hives.”

Happiness is, of course, a complex concept and difficult to measure, and John Stuart Mill had a point when he suggested: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

But in any case, nobility can lead to happiness. Professor Haidt notes that one thing that can make a lasting difference to your contentment is to work with others on a cause larger than yourself.

I see that all the time. I interview people who were busy but reluctantly undertook some good cause because (sigh!) it was the right thing to do. Then they found that this “sacrifice” became a huge source of fulfillment and satisfaction.

Brain scans by neuroscientists confirm that altruism carries its own rewards. A team including Dr. Jorge Moll of the National Institutes of Health found that when a research subject was encouraged to think of giving money to a charity, parts of the brain lit up that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.

The implication is that we are hard-wired to be altruistic. To put it another way, it’s difficult for humans to be truly selfless, for generosity feels so good.

“The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people,” says Brian Mullaney, co-founder of Smile Train, which helps tens of thousands of children each year who are born with cleft lips and cleft palates. Mr. Mullaney was a successful advertising executive, driving a Porsche and taking dates to the Four Seasons, when he felt something was missing and began volunteering for good causes. He ended up leaving the business world to help kids smile again — and all that makes him smile, too.

So at a time of vast needs, from Haiti to our own cities, here’s a nice opportunity for symbiosis: so many afflicted people, and so much benefit to us if we try to help them. Let’s remember that while charity has a mixed record helping others, it has an almost perfect record of helping ourselves. Helping others may be as primal a human pleasure as food or sex.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What About George?

Photo by Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

COMMITMENT George Kramer, 71, at Kramer's Hardware in Flatbush, where he knows everything about everything, including the keys

By SAKI KNAFO for the New York Times
Published: January 9, 2010

George Kramer sat hunched on his stool behind the counter of the small hardware store on Coney Island Avenue, gazing out the window at the passing traffic. He was bundled up in a heavy sweater, a maroon wool cap folded above his ears. Toward the back of the store, beyond Mr. Kramer’s field of vision, Isaac Abraham was rifling through a cabinet. Mr. Abraham, the store’s owner for many years, knows Mr. Kramer about as well as anybody, and he was about to give a demonstration.

Quietly, he removed a faucet knob from the cabinet and hid it behind his back. Then he approached the counter and clapped it down with a flourish.

Mr. Kramer gave it a perfunctory glance. “Gerber,” he said.

“Gerber what?” asked Mr. Abraham.

“Ninety-nine, eleven fifty-one.”

Mr. Abraham turned over the package to show the catalog number: 99-1151. Mr. Kramer — George to me — is my second cousin, and he has worked at Kramer’s Hardware, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for 58 years. He has a developmental disability, which is obvious to people who meet him, but he also has a rare and less apparent ability: Like the late Kim Peek, the inspiration for the film “Rain Man,” George, 71, has a powerful memory for dates and numbers and facts. If you tell him your birthday, he can tell you what day it will fall on two years in the future. He studies phone directories and atlases in his spare time. As one relative recently put it to me, “If you drop him in Oshkosh or anywhere, he’ll find his way home.”

On the surface, a run-down hardware shop in Flatbush might seem an odd place for a person like George to thrive. But if you set aside the sheets of pegboard and the metal cabinets and the key-making machine, what is left are hundreds and hundreds of small, obscure utilitarian objects, many almost identical to the casual observer. George can identify each nut and bolt and screw on sight, as Mr. Abraham’s test was intended to show, and he knows where, exactly, in the store it is kept. He can tell you its cost. And he can tell you the name — and often the phone number — of the company that made it.

His command of the inventory is such that Mr. Abraham has never had to invest in a computer to track it. “My reliance on him is mind-boggling,” Mr. Abraham said.

That reliance began with a favor. Thirty years ago, Mr. Abraham took over the store from George’s father, David Kramer, who was worried about his son’s future. Mr. Abraham agreed to keep George employed until George was ready to retire, and when he transferred the store to a new owner about a year ago, his successor did the same. These owners well know of George’s value to the business; still, the fact that David ensured such a secure future for his disabled son is as striking a feature of Kramer’s Hardware as George’s memory.

WHEN George was a child, his parents were told to put him in an institution. Though it’s not clear whether doctors gave him a precise diagnosis at that time, they said he would never be able to get along in society. His mother visited a couple of schools — including the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, which later became notorious for its brutal treatment of residents — but ultimately they kept him at home. George’s younger brother, a copywriter in New Jersey, said George was eventually found to be mentally retarded but has not been examined for his disability since childhood.

In retrospect, the choice his parents made may seem like an obvious one, but it went against the prevailing wisdom of the day, and it also raised a difficult question for them: Who would support their son after they were gone?

David Kramer, whose father, Gdal, founded Kramer’s Hardware around 1930, started giving George small chores around the shop — moving the stock, taking out the garbage. According to the accounts of some of our relatives, George had been an unruly child, yet he proved an eager and reliable worker, and over time, his responsibilities multiplied.

Three decades passed and Mr. Abraham, then a young Brooklyn entrepreneur, began expressing an interest in acquiring the store. By this time — 1979 — David was thinking seriously about retirement. “He was ready to teach me the business,” Mr. Abraham recalled, “but there was a ‘but’ — and this was a big ‘but’ — he wanted to make sure that George would be secure.”

George was now 41. He handled the phones, dealt with customers and counted the cash at the end of the night, and had long ago committed to memory the catalog number for every eye bolt and corner brace and turnbuckle. David asked Mr. Abraham to hang around the shop for a few weeks, and at the end of that period he sat Mr. Abraham down and asked him a pointed question: “What about George?”

If David’s plan in requiring Mr. Abraham to spend time at the store had been to show him George’s value as an employee, it worked.

“I saw that George was an asset,” Mr. Abraham said. “In the medical terminology they might call him autistic, but I immediately called him a genius.”

Mr. Abraham promised David that he would never need to worry about his son, and he says he repeated the promise 12 years later, when David, on his deathbed, asked about George one last time.

“If I shine shoes on Broadway,” Mr. Abraham said he told him, “he’ll be shining shoes next to me.”

MR. Abraham has not had to resort to shining shoes, but his three decades owning the little neighborhood hardware store have not always been smooth. Kramer’s has narrowly survived several rough economic periods, and has contended with the arrival in Brooklyn of two huge competitors, Home Depot and Lowe’s, both of which have outlets within three miles of the store.

Through it all, George has been an ideal worker: honest (perhaps because he is incapable of lying), uncomplaining and extremely punctual.

His routine is as inflexible as a brass-plated wood screw. Every day, without fail, he arrives in the neighborhood by bus at 7 a.m., an hour before the store opens. Every day, he eats breakfast in one of two places — a restaurant called La Guadalupana Taqueria Mexicana, next to Kramer’s, or a Dunkin’ Donuts a few blocks away. And every day, regardless of which place he patronizes, he orders the same thing: a bagel with cream cheese, coffee and orange juice — “the combo.” George raises the store gates at exactly 8 a.m. Most of the customers are building superintendents, and as they trickle in, they greet him playfully: “Hey, George, did you miss me?” “How’s your girlfriend, George?” Much to their amusement, he answers straightforwardly, with little inflection. “Yes, my friend,” he might say, or “No,” or “I don’t know.”

At exactly 5 p.m., George lowers the gates and takes the bus down Coney Island Avenue to his home. He lives in one of several Brooklyn residences run by the Adult Retardates Center, a group for people with developmental disabilities that his parents helped found in the 1950s. He eats dinner with the other residents at 5:15, showers at 8 and goes to bed at exactly 11. His weekends are similarly scheduled, with visits to the Young Israel synagogue on Avenue J and to a recreational center — “the Club” — where he plays games, drinks Diet Cokes and dances with his companion of 21 years, who lives in one of the group’s other residences.

Every year George sends out dozens of birthday cards to relatives; every year he calls to make sure the card has arrived on time. At family gatherings, which he begins talking about months in advance, he insists on taking a picture of every person at the table. His photo albums contain the most comprehensive record of my family that there is — thousands of unevenly framed snapshots documenting decades of Seders and Thanksgivings.

And yet, as devoted as George is to these routines, it is difficult to say exactly why he performs them or how they affect him. He seldom makes eye contact. Hardly anyone has seen him laugh, or cry, and although he is often pronouncing things (mostly restaurants) good or bad — “Garden of Eat-In on Avenue J! That’s good!” — it is hard to know whether he is expressing genuine feelings or repeating opinions picked up from others.

Most of the time, he is quiet. When he speaks, it is often to blurt out some phrase that has no apparent relevance. Only when he is pressed does it become clear that these utterances do, in fact, have meaning. “April 5th Monday night!” he shouted out one afternoon in December, prompting a request for an explanation. “I have to go shul April 5th,” he replied. “Mommy’s yahrzeit. That’s important. But electric bulbs only. No candles in the house. That’s dangerous.”

Jews commemorate the anniversary of a person’s death, the yahrzeit, by lighting a candle or a ceremonial light bulb and reciting the mourner’s Kaddish during daily prayers. George’s mother died in 1985 and his father in 1991.

He is the only member of the family who still marks their memory this way.

TO the extent George does engage in conversation, much of that conversation centers on the past. “I’m reading a book about Ansonia clock factory on 420 13th Street,” he announced at the store one time. “Who lived there? Pop Kramer and Mom Kramer lived there.”

Another time he got into an excited discussion with a customer over the pedigree of a local apartment building. George was excited, that is. The customer, a super, didn’t quite share his enthusiasm.

“1620 Caton. Is it the big building?” asked George.

“George!” said the super. “Write down 1620 and that’s it.”

“1620 Caton Avenue,” George persisted. “I remember that building used to be Waxman brothers!”

When George declares that the Waxman brothers owned this or that building, or that so-and-so lived at this or that address, it often seems as if he is rattling off an arbitrary, inconsequential piece of trivia. But these pieces of trivia, put together, form a jigsaw-puzzle picture of a world that exists more vividly in George’s mind than perhaps anywhere else.

In the many years that George has worked at Kramer’s, Brooklyn has transformed around it: high-rises have shot up, new immigrant populations have swept in, and most of the people who grew up with him have died or moved to the suburbs. Old businesses are forever “going out,” in George’s phrase, and he announces the passing of each with a staccato shout: “Brandz for Less 1351 Coney Island Avenue is going out December 31st!” “Bargain Hunters 1605 Avenue M closed up for good!”

Amid all these closings and openings, George appears to have changed relatively little. He observes a host of customs that his parents taught him years ago, and many of the obscure facts that preoccupy him have been preoccupying him for ages. Even the store is sort of a time capsule. Almost all of its products were bought years back, from companies that no longer exist. Piled on the shelves in the rear are boxes and boxes of screws and bolts with old-fashioned labels reading “Sturdy Nut and Bolt Co., New York, N.Y.” and “Universal Screw and Bolt Co., N.Y. N.Y., U.S.A.,” relics from the city’s industrial past.

At 71, though, George is slowing down. Mr. Abraham said that he did not expect him to last in the job much longer. “How long can he do it physically?” he said. “There were times two years ago where he wasn’t very well and I was under the full assumption that he was not going to make it back.”

The business is slower, too. Perhaps because of the recession, the flow of customers is more like a trickle. The shelves are half empty, and the bottles of cleaning fluid are covered with dust. George typically spends a good part of each day sitting at the counter and leafing through hardware and restaurant supply catalogs, and occasionally reeling off facts about the various companies whose names are displayed on passing trucks (“Driscoll Foods! Clifton, New Jersey!”).

Change has arrived at Kramer’s in one other way as well. Mr. Abraham, who had long served as an unelected advocate for Brooklyn’s Hasidic community, embarked in 2008 on a campaign for City Council. He ultimately lost, to Stephen Levin, but when he began his time-consuming bid, he handed off the business to a new owner, a 36-year-old friend of the family named Moshe Meyerson.

So, what about George? Where did this transition leave him? Mr. Meyerson, noting how long George has been at Kramer’s Hardware, said, “He’s going to be there until he retires.” Given George’s age, Mr. Meyerson added, he imagined that might happen in three or four years.

When I brought up the prospect of retirement with George, he told me that he, too, had been giving it some thought. But when I asked what he might do with his time, all he said was, “I don’t know yet.”

He was facing away as he spoke, toward the store window, with its charmless view of Coney Island Avenue and the auto-body shops and apartment buildings beyond. As usual, it was impossible to know what he was thinking. Nevertheless, it seems likely that, someday soon, he will wake in the morning and have no gates to open, no customers to greet, no shovels or wrenches or Gerber faucets to sell. All of it will be gone.

But not forgotten.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

As Hawaii’s Seas Roil, Surfers Await the Big One

Photo by Hugh Gentry/Reuters

December 8, 2009
As Hawaii’s Seas Roil, Surfers Await the Big One
By Jesse McKinley for the New York Times

WAIMEA BAY, Hawaii — The world’s best surfers are waiting for a once-in-a-generation wave here along the North Shore of Oahu, after dozens of them plunged into the churning waters on Monday, dodging rocks, reefs, and driftwood in waves rarely seen even in surf paradises like Hawaii — but still shy of the big one.

Not that it wasn’t dangerous, with crushing, rolling, manhandling waves able to break boards and bodies alike. Lifeguards talked one surfer through a nasty wipeout early Monday, and used all-terrain vehicles to reach another who had shattered an ankle.

“I’m stoked,” said Greg Long, 26, a surfer from Southern California. “If it happens,” he said of the predicted swell, “it’s going to be the most exciting big-wave event in the history of the sport.”

Surf experts and weather officials have forecast a swell — churned by North Pacific storms — that may rival those of 1969, considered a seminal year in surfing the North Shore, where images of surfers flying down towering waves helped bring the sport into the mainstream and into the perennial realm of cool.

In the next day or so, 30-foot to 50-foot wave faces are possible, according to the National Weather Service, the type of prediction that sends professional wave-riders into an extremely mellow frenzy.

“I chase big waves around the world to foggy places where it’s freezing cold,” said Mark Healey, 28, a professional surfer who grew up on the North Shore. “To finally get a swell like this in my backyard, there’s no way I’m missing a second of it.”

Before dawn on Monday, the cream — or is it the foam? — of the surfing world assembled at Waimea Bay on the possibility that the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Competition — one of the sport’s most prestigious and rarest events — would be held. “The Eddie,” named for a well-known Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard, is an invitation-only event held when the surf is at its fiercest — in its 25-year history, it has been held only seven times, the last in 2004 — and can be called at a moment’s notice.

So it is that over the last week, all 28 invited surfers and most of the 24 alternates have flown in, shipped in extra boards, and nervously watched the radar and buoy reports for signs that “Eddie-approved” waves would arrive.

On Monday morning, the surf was big enough but too rowdy for smooth surfing, though organizers had high hopes for Tuesday. “Welcome to the Thunderdome,” said Mark Cunningham, one the event’s announcers, to thousands of spectators. “Here comes another set!”

Onlookers filled the wide beach, throwing down towels and pitching tents in the wet sand, while others stood at attention, cheering and “oohing” as surfers curled into cylinders of water, shooting out and occasionally into acres of white foam.

“Even the pros know it’s sketchy,” said Cameron Motz, a spectator. “Or they’re crazy.”

Competitors used the day for practice as the surf built. By late afternoon, some people were riding 30-foot waves in the bay, while at nearby Sunset Beach a crew was using a crane to move a lifeguard station out of the way of oncoming surf.

At Waimea, lifeguards had to continually warn spectators — and lesser surfers — from going too close to the water.

“Anybody who enters the water today,” a lifeguard, Jeff Morelock, said over a beachside public-address system, “better know what they are doing.”

Dozens of relatives of Mr. Aikau, who vanished — atop his board — in 1978 while trying to rescue passengers on a capsized canoe off the Hawaiian coast, had also traveled to the bay where Mr. Aikau’s prowess as a lifeguard is the stuff of lore.

Officials closed beaches all along the shore in expectation of the big surf, and the police and civil defense officers were warily monitoring the coast for flooding, as some residents moved possessions to higher ground.

A predicted three-part swell began developing on Friday night, drawing both professionals and recreational surfers to the wide sand beaches and surfing meccas like the Pipeline and ocean spots with names like Avalanche.

Bill Weeshoff, who works in advertising in Honolulu, dared the North Shore waves on Sunday even as newly stretched police tape warned beachcombers not to enter the water. Mr. Weeshoff, who moved to Hawaii 16 years ago to surf and never left, called the conditions “epic.”

“This,” he said, “is why you live in Hawaii.”

The big waves were also a boon for local businesses, as hotels and surf shops filled up. Joe Green, the owner of Surf N’ Sea, in nearby Haleiwa, said that winter tourism — a lifeblood of the Hawaiian economy — seemed to be coming back in 2009, and that big surf helped.

“People need more equipment,” Mr. Green said. “And break more equipment.”

The storm in the Pacific had also raised hopes for another major surfing event — the Mavericks — held outside Half Moon Bay, Calif., near San Francisco, with some of the same surfers.

“I’d finish here, and get the red eye,” said Peter Mel, a veteran surfer from Santa Cruz, near Half Moon Bay. “It would be the ultimate swell.”

On Monday, however, organizers said the Mavericks probably would not place this week.

Whether Hawaii would be witness to the Eddie any time soon remained an open question, though the event’s 79-year-old director, George Downing, said that his sense of the weather and wave reports made Tuesday a real possibility. A lifelong big-wave surfer with the laid-back attitude to match, Mr. Downing checked hourly reports from a buoy 200 miles northwest of the islands and seemed to believe that the big surf was on its way.

“If it’s going to come,” he said, surveying the surf at daybreak on Monday, “it’s going to come tomorrow.”

Monday, June 29, 2009

Science Takes to the Ice

By PAM BELLUCK for the New York Times
Published: June 22, 2009

NEWARK, Del. — Melissa Bulanhagui is a highly ranked figure skater, but two years ago her right ankle failed her. She sprained it twice and tore a ligament, each time during one of her favorite jumps, the triple lutz.

Other skaters have suffered similar injuries, and now science is studying why, aiming to help skaters meet the sport’s physical challenges without sacrificing their health.

For one study, Ms. Bulanhagui (pronounced BULL-en-hayg-ee), 18, and other skaters tape to their shins devices called tibial accelerometers, which measure the force of the impact when skaters land a jump.

“A lot of the impacts are really high, 90 to 100 G’s,” said Kat Arbour, a skater turned graduate researcher at the University of Delaware. “If you hit your head that hard, I don’t think you’d survive.”

But she said study results suggested that the issue was not jumping itself, but how well jumps were executed. “If someone is really proficient, they seem to be able to modify their technique to decrease the impact, use muscles differently to absorb that shock,” she said.

The accelerometer study is part of a flowering of research on safety and performance. And it is no coincidence that such research is growing at a time when figure skating, a year-round pursuit for competitive skaters, emphasizes athleticism and endurance more than ever before.

Adjustments to international judging guidelines in 2003 made skating “much more physically and mentally challenging,” said Mitch Moyer, senior director of athlete high performance for United States Figure Skating, which is sponsoring the accelerometer study and others. Each skill in a performance now receives specific points, requiring more focus. And skaters no longer have an incentive to perform all jumps early in a program before they tire — now, jumps done later earn extra points.

“People said, ‘Oh, it’s an art,’ but the reality is it’s a very taxing sport,” said Michelle Provost-Craig, associate professor of exercise physiology at the University of Delaware. “Many skaters end up with stress fractures, knee problems and hip problems at a fairly young age.”

Research could inspire new training recommendations concerning issues like off-ice conditioning and limiting repetitions of jumps during practice. United States Figure Skating now has a sport sciences and medicine director, who works with scientific researchers and helps coaches monitor skaters’ health more closely and pace workouts.

“Coaches are paying a lot more attention to these things,” said Mr. Moyer, who said some concerns were set off by a “trend of hip issues” with skaters like the Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, whose hip injuries required surgery at 18. “I hear a lot more buzz out there — ‘you need to stop jumping, you’ve done enough today.’ ”

Scientists are looking at skating from every angle — biomechanics, physics, muscle conditioning, body fat, oxygen consumption, exercise-induced asthma.

Ms. Arbour, of the University of Delaware, has skaters, wearing swimsuits and nose clips, climb into the “bod pod,” an egglike capsule measuring fat and muscle composition. A “bone densitometer” analyzes bone density, which tends to increase with frequent impacts.

“If it’s low, they are at risk for stress fractures in the legs and lumbar spine,” she said. “If it’s too high, they are at risk for osteoarthritis because the cartilage is taking a lot of shock absorption.”

With Professor Provost-Craig, Ms. Arbour also outfits skaters with “a crazy dungeon thing that goes over the mouth and nose,” measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide in air skaters expel.

Science is even filtering into recreational skating, with the development of synthetic ice, intended to broaden appeal and year-round interest. But most research concerns competitive skaters.

Some researchers are interested, for example, in the sport’s effects on younger skaters, said Mr. Moyer, because “kids develop differently at different ages. If somebody’s injured at 14, was it because of what they were doing at 9 or 10, or at 14?”

Professor Provost-Craig plans to study whether certain jumps generate such physical impact that younger skaters should delay learning them.

“A lutz might put more loading on a young skeletal developing frame than a toe loop,” she said. “They may choose, especially during a growth spurt, not to teach a new jump with extensive loading characteristics.”

Some research focuses on training and equipment.

James Richards, senior biomechanist for the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Delaware, designed a skate boot to provide flexibility for pointing toes and maneuvering feet.

Current boots are stiff for support, “comparable to a cast,” said Kelly Lockwood, an associate professor of physical education and kinesiology at Brock University in Ontario, preventing the ankle from absorbing enough impact.

Professor Richards’s boot, hinged around the ankle, allowed flexibility but fell apart after about a month, he said. And skaters and coaches thought it unattractive.

“People were willing to give it a try if it was helping in impact and injury,” Mr. Moyer said. He said that Alissa Czisny, currently the national champion, wore the boots for a while, but that she and others “became frustrated with some of the challenges.”

He hopes the accelerometer study will indicate whether “one type of boot design or blade design could maybe reduce the stress load.”

Professor Lockwood has studied something more rudimentary: how skate blades are sharpened. A blade’s bottom is not flat, but grooved to create two edges that grip the ice. A study with the National Hockey League of groin injuries found that “more than 50 percent of them are due to skate sharpening, way too deep a hollow” in the blade’s groove, which can give a player too much traction instead of allowing easy gliding, she said.

Sharpening, it turns out, is hard to do well, and sharpeners who earn respect from skaters and coaches have become scientists of sorts, too. George Knakal, a 79-year-old retired cabinetmaker turned sharpener in Norwalk, Conn., pays zealous attention to several factors, including the concavity of the blade.

“For a new skater, I make it nearly flat because a little kid is very awkward and you want to give them something that will slip so when they fall they don’t get hurt,” he said.

Training when not on ice is another matter altogether, and theories differ about what off-ice conditioning is best.

“It’s a sport where you’re doing contradictory things,” said Deborah King, associate professor of exercise and sport sciences at Ithaca College. “Running or cycling or stair-stepping to improve aerobic capacity — does that translate really well on the ice, or is it better to do something more specific to skating? Do you need a lot of strength training in the gym or training to do the motion while rotating?”

Professor Provost-Craig said skaters should not “bulk up” from strength training because “if they increase girth of shoulders, hips or thighs, that’s going to decrease rotational spin.”

One recent invention for off-ice training is a block of wood topped with rubber, slanted to approximate angles of skaters’ blades on ice. Wearing skates on the block, skaters assume different positions.

“It will freeze-frame any on-ice technique and mimic as close as you possibly can the requirements for balance, that sensation of shifting your weight against momentum,” said its creator, David Lipetz, a physical therapist who is trying to get coaches and skaters to use the device.

Professor Provost-Craig’s oxygen mask readings help gauge the aerobic conditioning skaters need, measuring their “VO2 max,” she said, “oxygen their muscles are consuming” as they skate to increasingly fast music. More is better, improving endurance, for example, to do jumps later in performance.

Professor King analyzed jumps in a different way. Studying Olympic skaters, she determined that on triple jumps, they went no higher than on double or single jumps — rather, they rotated faster by pulling in their arms, making their bodies compact.

That guides one of Professor Richards’s more elaborate projects. With sophisticated motion-capturing cameras and computer programs, he mimics skaters’ positions during jumps and calibrates the effect of altering angles of the head, torso, arm and leg.

Consider Emma Phibbs, a 22-year-old pairs skater looking to make a comeback after scaling back skating in college. Recently, researchers affixed 38 quarter-size stickers — made from golf ball markers, children’s alphabet beads and reflective tape — all over Ms. Phibbs’s body and sent her skating.

Doing triple toe loops and double axels, she wobbled on some landings, occasionally falling.

Rink-side, Professor Richards’s computer displayed an outline of Ms. Phibbs, construed from the reflective stickers.

“Her left arm is higher than her right arm — she’s got to lean to one side to compensate,” he said. Breathless from jumping, Ms. Phibbs reviewed the computer images.

“With my elbow and my trunk being off, my landing will be off and I’ll two-foot it,” she said. Then Tom Kepple, a researcher, displayed an animated avatar of Ms. Phibbs’s jump attempts, calculating that she rotated only 314 degrees. With a few keystrokes, he tucked the left arm in.

“That adds 40 degrees more of revolution,” he said. “If she brought the left leg in a little straighter? You pick up 10 or 15 degrees rotation. But if she brings her leg in too much, the jump goes bad.”

Such analysis works “not just for technique, but also for injury prevention,” Mr. Moyer said. “You can see what your result is going to be before you try it.”

That could make a difference for skaters who must train aggressively enough to master moves but not aggressively enough to hurt themselves.

“I always tell my athletes that they’re going to be injured at some point in their career, so it’s more about management of that and also trying to have a minor injury instead of a major injury,” said Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches top skaters. “I have certain jump limitations and restrictions — I always have to pull back my skaters from repetition of jumping.”

In Delaware, after the scientists opined on Ms. Phibbs’s body position, she got back on the ice.

“I focused on keeping my elbow down, and my landings were a lot more solid,” she said. “It definitely proved itself.”


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On the Edge of a Fjord

By SUE CHESTER for the
Published: November 25, 2008

ASKER, Norway

Everyone aspires to have a spectacular view. For Jeff and Tina Leopold, who built their dream home next to a fjord, 30 minutes south of Oslo, the vista of water, islands and pine trees provides daily inspiration.

“We are very fortunate to have a property close to the water,” Mr. Leopold said. “It’s extremely special.”

The couple met through mutual Norwegian friends while they both were studying in California. Mrs. Leopold, 37, was born in Denver but has Norwegian parents and was brought up in the Oslo region; Mr. Leopold, 42, is from the San Francisco area. They had a long-distance relationship until Mr. Leopold decided to move to Norway in 1996. They now have two children, ages 6 and 8.

“I felt I would like the challenge to go somewhere else and make a life out of it,” Mr. Leopold said of moving abroad. “I knew the biggest challenge would be establishing a career.”

When he first moved to Norway he worked as an inventory management consultant in the outdoor sporting industry. Now he owns his own company, which imports outdoor clothing. He works from a home office next to the garage, giving him the opportunity to be on hand to help with the children and to enjoy family life.

The house is a large structure of white weatherboard, with an asymmetric tangle of gables, eaves and windows and five large decks at various levels. The front garden leads to the water’s edge and the family’s dock, off which they swim and fish.

“We’re down there all summer,” Mr. Leopold said. “For the kids, it is fantastic. They love to swim. You have a long winter here when you’re inside all the time. We also go out to the islands with our boat and fish from there.”

Achieving their dream home was not easy. They had their eyes on the 800-square-meter (8,610-square-foot) property as early as 1998, but did not manage to buy it until 2003. Planning permission to build a home on the property had already been issued, but as it was waterfront, they knew there would be fierce competition from other perspective buyers. The couple, however, had a distinct advantage. Through a Norwegian property law known called “Family Purchasing Rights,” the couple were automatically given the right to buy the land, as Mrs. Leopold’s great aunt owned the property.

“Typically in the fjord area here at Asker you can’t build a house within 100 meters (330 feet) of the water,” Mr. Leopold said. “So it was unusual to get property so close to the fjord.”

They bought the land in June 2003 for 2.3 million kroner (about $350,000 at the time). Their construction budget, originally 3.7 million kroner ($533,400 now), ended up totaling 8 million kroner ($1.15 million), including the landscaping.

They now have a 300-square-meter (3,229-square-foot) house and garage with an adjoining 36-square-meter (387-square-foot) office.

In October 2007, the property was appraised at 13.5 million kroner ($1.95 million), although Mr. Leopold admitted it may be worth less following the global downturn, which has also affected Norway’s housing market.

His general estimate of the country’s market was confirmed by Odd Nymark, the chief executive of EiendomSmegler 1 Oslo Akershus, a real estate agency. “Selling property in Oslo right now is like driving a car with the handbrake on,” he said. “Turnover is down by 30 to 40 percent and prices dropped by 4.7 percent in October. We expect prices to go down 5 to 10 percent before they bottom out.”

Mr. Leopold said that, despite the downturn, he is confident that the house is still a good investment. “It will always hold its value as it’s prized waterfront, which is almost impossible to find nowadays,” he said.

The 116-square-meter (1,250-square-foot) ground floor has high ceilings and a large kitchen area. There are floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. “We designed it so that you can be looking at the view once you’re in the kitchen,” Mr. Leopold said.

There is an open fireplace and a wood-burning stove, but most of the heat is generated from an electric system under the floor, which, at 250,000 krone ($36,040), was the most expensive part of the building budget. Each room’s heat is controlled by a remote thermostat set according to the size of windows and ceiling height so the temperature is constant throughout the house.

Upstairs there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms; in the basement there is a self-contained 60-square-meter (646-square-foot), one-bedroom apartment that the Leopolds rent out for 10,000 kroner ($1,440) a month. Also on the lower level is a guest room with its own bathroom, a recreation room (with a snooker table and plenty of room for ski gear) and a utility room for the heating controls.

“In Norway, if you have an apartment inside your house, the rental income isn’t taxed,” Mr. Leopold said. “I was quite negative about it, but after seeing the expenses the house generates I realized it was quite a good idea. One 120,000 kroner ($17,300) per year tax free — that’s good finance.”

The Leopolds also decided to have electric heating under the driveway and the path leading to the front door to keep the ground ice free. “This device is particularly useful when my family visit,” Mr. Leopold said. “They’re not used to walking on ice. Their Californian motor skills aren’t quite designed for it.”

Although Norway’s winters are long with short days, the Leopolds believe the Scandinavian summers are one of the region’s best kept secrets.

“They’re beautiful with temperatures of 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) through the night, and it’s light until midnight,” Mr. Leopold said. “Tina loves the sun so that’s why we have a sun deck on every side of the house. We’re actually quite blown away that we are living here and have a place right in front of the water. ”


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens

By: Rachel Somerstein for

Born in 1949 in Waterbury, Connecticut, Annie Leibovitz enrolled in the San Francisco Art Institute intent on studying painting. It was not until she traveled to Japan with her mother the summer after her sophomore year that she discovered her interest in taking photographs. When she returned to San Francisco that fall, she began taking night classes in photography. Time spent on a kibbutz in Israel allowed her to hone her skills further.

In 1970 Leibovitz approached Jann Wenner, founding editor of Rolling Stone, which he’d recently launched and was operating out of San Francisco. Impressed with her portfolio, Wenner gave Leibovitz her first assignment: shoot John Lennon. Leibovitz’s black-and-white portrait of the shaggy-looking Beatle graced the cover of the January 21, 1971 issue. Two years later she was named Rolling Stone chief photographer.

When the magazine began printing in color in 1974, Leibovitz followed suit. “In school, I wasn’t taught anything about lighting, and I was only taught black-and-white,” she told ARTnews in 1992. “So I had to learn color myself.” Among her subjects from that period are Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, and Patti Smith. Leibovitz also served as the official photographer for the Rolling Stones’ 1975 world tour. While on the road with the band she produced her iconic black-and-white portraits of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, shirtless and gritty.

In 1980 Rolling Stone sent Leibovitz to photograph John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who had recently released their album “Double Fantasy.” For the portrait Leibovitz imagined that the two would pose together nude. Lennon disrobed, but Ono refused to take off her pants. Leibovitz “was kinda disappointed,” according to Rolling Stone, and so she told Ono to leave her clothes on. “We took one Polaroid,” said Leibovitz, “and the three of us knew it was profound right away.” The resulting portrait shows Lennon nude and curled around a fully clothed Ono. Several hours later, Lennon was shot dead in front of his apartment. The photograph ran on the cover of the Rolling Stone Lennon commemorative issue. In 2005 the American Society of Magazine Editors named it the best magazine cover from the past 40 years.

Annie Leibovitz: Photographs, the photographer’s first book, was published in 1983. The same year Leibovitz joined Vanity Fair and was made the magazine’s first contributing photographer. At Vanity Fair she became known for her wildly lit, staged, and provocative portraits of celebrities. Most famous among them are Whoopi Goldberg submerged in a bath of milk and Demi Moore naked and holding her pregnant belly. (The cover showing Moore — which then-editor Tina Brown initially balked at running — was named second best cover from the past 40 years.) Since then Leibovitz has photographed celebrities ranging from Brad Pitt to Mikhail Baryshnikov. She’s shot Ellen DeGeneres, the George W. Bush cabinet, Michael Moore, Madeleine Albright, and Bill Clinton. She’s shot Scarlett Johannson and Keira Knightley nude, with Tom Ford in a suit; Nicole Kidman in ball gown and spotlights; and, recently, the world’s long-awaited first glimpse of Suri Cruise, along with parents Tom and Katie. Her portraits have appeared in Vogue, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker, and in ad campaigns for American Express, the Gap, and the Milk Board.

Among other honors, Leibovitz has been made a Commandeur des Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government and has been designated a living legend by the Library of Congress. Her first museum show, Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990, took place in 1991 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and toured internationally for six years. At the time she was only the second living portraitist — and the only woman — to be featured in an exhibition by the institution.

Leibovitz met Susan Sontag in 1989 while photographing the writer for her book AIDS and its Metaphors. “I remember going out to dinner with her and just sweating through my clothes because I thought I couldn’t talk to her,” Leibovitz said in an interview with The New York Times late last year. Sontag told her, “You’re good, but you could be better.” Though the two kept separate apartments, their relationship lasted until Sontag’s death in late 2004.

Sontag’s influence on Leibovitz was profound. In 1993 Leibovitz traveled to Sarajevo during the war in the Balkans, a trip that she admits she would not have taken without Sontag’s input. Among her work from that trip is Sarajevo, Fallen Bicycle of Teenage Boy Just Killed by a Sniper, a black-and-white photo of a bicycle collapsed on blood-smeared pavement. Sontag, who wrote the accompanying essay, also first conceived of Leibovitz’s book Women (1999). The book includes images of famous people along with those not well known. Celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Diane Sawyer share space with miners, soldiers in basic training, and Las Vegas showgirls in and out of costume.

Leibovitz’s most recent book, A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005, includes her trademark celebrity portraits. But it also features personal photographs from Leibovitz’s life: her parents, siblings, children, nieces and nephews, and Sontag. Leibovitz, who has called the collection “a memoir in photographs,” was spurred to assemble it by the deaths of Sontag and her father, only weeks apart. The book even includes photos of Leibovitz herself, like the one that shows her nude and eight months pregnant, à la Demi Moore. That picture was taken in 2001, shortly before Leibovitz gave birth to daughter Sarah. Daughters Susan and Samuelle, named in honor of Susan and Leibovitz’s father, were born to a surrogate in 2005.

Leibovitz composed these personal photographs with materials that she used when she was first starting out in the ’70s: a 35-millimeter camera, black-and-white Tri X film. “I don’t have two lives,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.” Still, she told the Times, this book is the “most intimate, it tells the best story, and I care about it.”


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Carbo-Loading, Hawaiian Style

Photo by Cory Lum for The New York Times

Published: November 12, 2008

AMONG the myriad people and institutions predicted to profit from Barack Obama’s victory, why has no one cited the plate lunch?

This traditional Hawaiian meal — validated as fine fare by the president-elect when he proclaimed his longing for one during a vacation in Oahu last summer — might be poised to enter the consciousness of mainlanders in all of its fatty, greasy deliciousness.

It is probably unrealistic to expect aloha-infused cuisine in the White House kitchen, given Mr. Obama’s clear fixation with staying trim and healthy. But he has made no secret of the fact that when in Hawaii he likes to indulge in the culinary treats of his youth there, including the fast food at Zippy’s, a local chain; shave ice, the ambrosial confection of powdered ice topped with fruit syrups; and the plate lunch.

Drawing on the food ways of the Hawaiian Islands’ many Asian immigrant groups, and chowed down on regularly by everyone from surfers to businessmen to the future occupant of the White House, the plate lunch is simple in form but varied in its elements. Its foundation: two scoops of white rice and a side of macaroni salad, heavy on the mayonnaise.

This carbo load — usually piled into a plastic foam container — is paired with a protein, generally of the pan-Asian variety, often slathered in brown gravy. After a morning of hard work (or hard surf), one might opt for Korean kalbi or meat jun, Chinese char siu roast pork, Philippine pork adobo, Hawaiian kalua pork (a luau favorite), Japanese katsu or salmon teriyaki, Portuguese sausage, American-style beef stew, or loco moco — a hamburger patty and a fried egg.

“The cultural significance of the plate lunch is that it illustrates Hawaii as a special place where all of our mixed cultures share their foods with one another,” said Matthew Gray, who runs Hawaii Food Tours, which ferries tourists to Oahu’s plate lunch outlets and other lesser known haunts. “Instead of referring to Hawaii as a melting pot, I prefer to call us a salad bowl, where we all get to share and showcase the individual flavors, aromas and histories of our food.”

The Hawaiian plate lunch traces its roots to the 1880s, when giant fruit and sugar companies controlled much of the local economy. Among other factors, the decimation of the local population by disease made the companies desperate for plantation workers, and they drew a labor pool from China, Japan, Portugal, the Philippines and other areas.

For workers who toiled under harsh conditions, lunchtime was a respite, with hearty portions of rice matched with whatever meat was left over from dinner the night before.

“The workers would take their bento in these little tins,” said Kaui Philpotts, the former food editor of The Honolulu Advertiser, who has written books about Hawaiian food.

“They didn’t eat sandwiches or things like that,” Ms. Philpotts said, “it was leftover rice and a lot of things like canned meat or teriyaki or cold meat or maybe scrambled eggs or pickles, and almost no salad or vegetable.”

Macaroni, a later addition, seemed to bridge many national tastes and, slick with mayonnaise and a dab of salt and pepper, mixes well with a gravy-covered slab of meat.

After the plantation days ended, the plate lunch lived on. In the 1960s, it moved into lunch wagons, which took meals to workers putting up buildings and conducting other forms of day labor, with little time for lunch.

Enter next the holes in the wall and other stand-alone plate lunch restaurants, followed by chains that eventually expanded into Los Angeles and other cities. More recently, the health-conscious plate lunch has surfaced, in which brown rice replaces white, salads are offered instead of macaroni and misoyaki butterfish is as common as fried pork cutlets.

This summer, I enjoyed the kalua pork with sweet potato salad, and some macaroni salad made with grated onions, carrots and light mayo, at Luke’s Place, a restaurant in a plantation-style building in the tiny town of Hawi on the Big Island. “We are looking to go toward healthier but affordable,” said Mike Prine, the general manager.

Kaka’ako Kitchen, a plate lunch spot in a busy Honolulu shopping center, rounds out brown rice and greens with chicken in honey-lime vinaigrette, calamari with spinach salad or wild salmon with lemon-ginger sauce. “We try to take it a little more upscale,” said Russell Siu, the owner. “We don’t want to be like every other drive-in in town.”

Like, for instance, Rainbow Drive-In in Honolulu, popular among the flip-flop set and a destination on Barack Obama’s must-get-to list last summer. For less than $7 one can fill up on the teriyaki beef plate, which some like to top with chili, or the “mix, all over,” which is a plate of teriyaki beef, breaded mahi-mahi and fried chicken, smothered in brown gravy “all over.”

Indeed it is the standard plate lunch that tends to draw local crowds, for its magical mix of portions (large) and price (cheap). The plate lunch is something that Americans from the mainland “sort of turn their noses up at,” Ms. Philpotts said. “Especially if they are foodies or health conscious. They look at all that cholesterol and white rice, and they just go nuts. But people here grow up eating that.”

It all seems like odd fare for a man as bookmark-thin as Mr. Obama, who seems to treasure his treadmill. “I think it is really funny he still eats plate lunch,” Ms. Philpotts said. “Because he is so healthy.”

But she strongly suggested — at least to my ears — that the plate lunch in part accounts for his strong showing in Hawaii. “I think it is because when he comes back here he is so cool, he just kind of slips back into local ways.”


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Stretching: The Truth

Illustration by Emily Cooper
STRAIGHT-LEG MARCH (for the hamstrings and gluteus muscles)Kick one leg straight out in front of you, with your toes flexed toward the sky. Reach your opposite arm to the upturned toes. Drop the leg and repeat with the opposite limbs. Continue the sequence for at least six or seven repetitions.

Stretching: The Truth

WHEN DUANE KNUDSON, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Chico, looks around campus at athletes warming up before practice, he sees one dangerous mistake after another. “They’re stretching, touching their toes. . . . ” He sighs. “It’s discouraging.”

If you’re like most of us, you were taught the importance of warm-up exercises back in grade school, and you’ve likely continued with pretty much the same routine ever since. Science, however, has moved on. Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements.

“There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching,” says Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout.

THE RIGHT WARM-UP should do two things: loosen muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and literally warm up the body. When you’re at rest, there’s less blood flow to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen. “You need to make tissues and tendons compliant before beginning exercise,” Knudson says.

Illustration by Emily Cooper
SCORPION (for the lower back, hip flexors and gluteus muscles) Lie on your stomach, with your arms outstretched and your feet flexed so that only your toes are touching the ground. Kick your right foot toward your left arm, then kick your left foot toward your right arm. Since this is an advanced exercise, begin slowly, and repeat up to 12 times.

A well-designed warm-up starts by increasing body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively. They also withstand loads better. One significant if gruesome study found that the leg-muscle tissue of laboratory rabbits could be stretched farther before ripping if it had been electronically stimulated — that is, warmed up.

To raise the body’s temperature, a warm-up must begin with aerobic activity, usually light jogging. Most coaches and athletes have known this for years. That’s why tennis players run around the court four or five times before a match and marathoners stride in front of the starting line. But many athletes do this portion of their warm-up too intensely or too early. A 2002 study of collegiate volleyball players found that those who’d warmed up and then sat on the bench for 30 minutes had lower backs that were stiffer than they had been before the warm-up. And a number of recent studies have demonstrated that an overly vigorous aerobic warm-up simply makes you tired. Most experts advise starting your warm-up jog at about 40 percent of your maximum heart rate (a very easy pace) and progressing to about 60 percent. The aerobic warm-up should take only 5 to 10 minutes, with a 5-minute recovery. (Sprinters require longer warm-ups, because the loads exerted on their muscles are so extreme.) Then it’s time for the most important and unorthodox part of a proper warm-up regimen, the Spider-Man and its counterparts.

“TOWARDS THE end of my playing career, in about 2000, I started seeing some of the other guys out on the court doing these strange things before a match and thinking, What in the world is that?” says Mark Merklein, 36, once a highly ranked tennis player and now a national coach for the United States Tennis Association. The players were lunging, kicking and occasionally skittering, spider-like, along the sidelines. They were early adopters of a new approach to stretching.

While static stretching is still almost universally practiced among amateur athletes — watch your child’s soccer team next weekend — it doesn’t improve the muscles’ ability to perform with more power, physiologists now agree. “You may feel as if you’re able to stretch farther after holding a stretch for 30 seconds,” McHugh says, “so you think you’ve increased that muscle’s readiness.” But typically you’ve increased only your mental tolerance for the discomfort of the stretch. The muscle is actually weaker.

Stretching muscles while moving, on the other hand, a technique known as dynamic stretching or dynamic warm-ups, increases power, flexibility and range of motion. Muscles in motion don’t experience that insidious inhibitory response. They instead get what McHugh calls “an excitatory message” to perform.

Dynamic stretching is at its most effective when it’s relatively sports specific. “You need range-of-motion exercises that activate all of the joints and connective tissue that will be needed for the task ahead,” says Terrence Mahon, a coach with Team Running USA, home to the Olympic marathoners Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor. For runners, an ideal warm-up might include squats, lunges and “form drills” like kicking your buttocks with your heels. Athletes who need to move rapidly in different directions, like soccer, tennis or basketball players, should do dynamic stretches that involve many parts of the body. “Spider-Man” is a particularly good drill: drop onto all fours and crawl the width of the court, as if you were climbing a wall. (For other dynamic stretches, see the sidebar below.)

Even golfers, notoriously nonchalant about warming up (a recent survey of 304 recreational golfers found that two-thirds seldom or never bother), would benefit from exerting themselves a bit before teeing off. In one 2004 study, golfers who did dynamic warm- up exercises and practice swings increased their clubhead speed and were projected to have dropped their handicaps by seven strokes over seven weeks.

Illustration by Emily Cooper
HANDWALKS (for the shoulders, core muscles and hamstrings) Stand straight, with your legs together. Bend over until both hands are flat on the ground. ‘‘Walk’’ your hands forward until your back is almost extended. Keeping your legs straight, inch your feet toward your hands, then walk your hands forward again. Repeat five or six times.

Controversy remains about the extent to which dynamic warm-ups prevent injury. But studies have been increasingly clear that static stretching alone before exercise does little or nothing to help. The largest study has been done on military recruits; results showed that an almost equal number of subjects developed lower-limb injuries (shin splints, stress fractures, etc.), regardless of whether they had performed static stretches before training sessions. A major study published earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control, on the other hand, found that knee injuries were cut nearly in half among female collegiate soccer players who followed a warm-up program that included both dynamic warm-up exercises and static stretching. (For a sample routine, visit And in golf, new research by Andrea Fradkin, an assistant professor of exercise science at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, suggests that those who warm up are nine times less likely to be injured.

“It was eye-opening,” says Fradkin, formerly a feckless golfer herself. “I used to not really warm up. I do now.”

You’re Getting Warmer: The Best Dynamic Stretches

These exercises- as taught by the United States Tennis Association’s player-development program – are good for many athletes, even golfers. Do them immediately after your aerobic warm-up and as soon as possible before your workout.


(for the hamstrings and gluteus muscles)

Kick one leg straight out in front of you, with your toes flexed toward the sky. Reach your opposite arm to the upturned toes. Drop the leg and repeat with the opposite limbs. Continue the sequence for at least six or seven repetitions.


(for the lower back, hip flexors and gluteus muscles)

Lie on your stomach, with your arms outstretched and your feet flexed so that only your toes are touching the ground. Kick your right foot toward your left arm, then kick your leftfoot toward your right arm. Since this is an advanced exercise, begin slowly, and repeat up to 12 times.


(for the shoulders, core muscles, and hamstrings)

Stand straight, with your legs together. Bend over until both hands are flat on the ground. “Walk” with your hands forward until your back is almost extended. Keeping your legs straight, inch your feet toward your hands, then walk your hands forward again. Repeat five or six times. G.R.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Progress Is Minimal in Clearing DNA Cases

Photo by Ann Johansson for The New York Times
Stacy Vanderschaaf, of the Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center in Los Angeles, where the Police Department has some 7,000 cases awaiting DNA analysis.

By SOLOMON MOORE for The New York Times
October 24, 2008

LOS ANGELES — Local and state law enforcement agencies have made uneven progress in reducing a nationwide backlog of cases awaiting DNA analysis over the past four years, according to reports filed by more than 100 agencies with the National Institute of Justice.The patchy results came despite stepped-up efforts by the federal government, including nearly $500 million in grants since 2004, to help crime laboratories reduce the backlog.

Victims’ rights groups and some law enforcement officials say the untested evidence, much of it stemming from sexual assault crimes, leaves open the possibility that thousands of criminal offenders have gone unpunished or are on the loose and committing new crimes.

“That’s always a concern,” said Sharon Papa, an assistant chief in the Los Angeles Police Department, “because, unfortunately, oftentimes rape is a serial crime.”

The problem seems most severe here in Los Angeles, where the Police Department has the largest known backlog, about 7,000 cases, including many with rape kits from sexual assaults.

The backlog comprises a mix of open cases and solved cases awaiting analysis and entry of DNA into state and national databases.

An audit released Monday by the Los Angeles city comptroller found that 217 backlogged cases here involved sexual assaults so old the 10-year statute of limitations had lapsed. The audit did not determine how many, if any, of those cases might have been prosecuted based on other evidence. The federal government has not quantified the country’s overall DNA evidence backlog since 2003, when it stood at 542,000 cases, but a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has studied the backlog, Sarah Tofte, estimates that it exceeds 400,000.

“People just assumed that we were testing every kit,” Chief Papa said, “and we were not.”

About 95 percent of state and local criminal cases are resolved through plea agreements, often before DNA analyses are completed. The police and prosecutors rely on confessions, witness testimony and physical evidence like fingerprints and ballistics.

Still, DNA remains the most sophisticated and reliable physical evidence, especially in cases with no named suspects or promising investigative leads.

Two weeks ago, President Bush signed a bill that includes an additional $1.6 billion over six years intended to speed DNA analyses by hiring temporary crime lab workers, providing overtime pay and renovating crime labs.

But many crime labs are disqualified from receiving more money because they have failed to spend previous financing in a timely manner. A report prepared for Representative Howard L. Berman, a Democrat representing a district in Los Angeles, found that the Police Department had spent less than half of the $4.4 million in federal money it received from 2004 to 2008. Los Angeles police officials said that they had spent or committed all but one-third of that money but that they had not properly recorded some expenditures.

Photo by Ann Johansson for The New York Times
Many of the untested samples involve sexual assaults.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spent less than half of its $4.9 million in grants, the report said. Law enforcement agencies blame several factors for the DNA backlogs, including restrictions on how the federal money can be spent, local staff shortages, bureaucratic delays and planning problems. Some agencies have also seen the demand for new DNA analyses outpace efforts to clear old cases, criminalists said.

Pete Marone, chairman of the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations and director of the Virginia state crime lab, said staffing levels at crime labs had not kept pace with technological advances in DNA analysis.

“Police are starting to send us new work that we couldn’t have done before,” Mr. Marone said. “We can do ‘touch’ evidence now, utilizing DNA analysis to see whether a defendant even touched a weapon. We can get DNA evidence from steering wheels. We can go into a room and find drugs on the floor and we’ll be able to analyze those drugs to determine which hand threw them down on the floor.”

Criminalists said that other kinds of evidence occupied much of their time. Many crime labs facing hundreds of backlogged DNA cases have even more shelved fingerprint, serology, ballistics and drug evidence that needs to be tested.

“DNA really accounts for just 10 percent of the caseload in crime labs around the country,” Mr. Marone said. “The majority of our work is analyzing drugs.”

Processing of a DNA evidence sample takes about a week, said Larry Blanton, a criminologist for the Los Angeles Police Department.

After a sexual assault, the police try to collect biological material — blood, semen, saliva — from the victim and the crime scene. If DNA is found, a chemical process creates billions of copies. A machine then produces a profile of 13 unique markers, which are entered into state and national databases for matches. Each DNA sample costs about $1,500 to analyze, criminalists said.

Photo by Ann Johansson for The New York Times
A saliva sample taken from a rape kit in the Los Angeles crime lab.

About a quarter of the 105 local and state law enforcement agencies that received federal money to reduce their DNA backlogs beginning in 2004, when Congress first authorized the spending, were granted less money this year because they had failed to meet spending goals, according to the report prepared for Mr. Berman. In progress reports filed in January with the National Institute of Justice, about 40 of 82 agencies said their DNA case backlogs had increased or remained constant during the previous six months.

“Many places have not even counted their backlogs,” said Ms. Tofte, the researcher with Human Rights Watch.

In January, the Denver Police Department reported that it had used federal funds to process 13 cases last year, including eight rape kits, out of 934 backlogged cases. The Miami-Dade Police Department failed to spend any of the $200,000 it requested in 2007 to cut its DNA backlog, whose size was not reported to the federal government.

The West Virginia State Police reported that its DNA case backlog had grown to 697 cases by Dec. 31, 2007, from 560 cases in July 2007, despite receiving about $230,000 in federal money.

“Our backlog at its peak was around 730, and now we have about a 650-case backlog,” said Lt. Brent Myers, head of the state’s DNA analysis unit. “We haven’t been able to hire temporary employees as we would have liked, so that’s why it’s taken longer to spend that money.”

The federal grants can be used to outsource DNA testing or to hire temporary employees, but not permanent staff members.

Some police departments have done better. In New York City, a backlog of more than 17,000 DNA samples from sexual assault and homicide cases from 2001 to 2004 was brought under control when the Police Department hired additional criminalists to work more cases, added overtime, bought analysis equipment and hired private firms to process DNA.

Elsewhere, the backlog has haunted detectives, as it did in a rape case that Detective Tim Marcia of the Los Angeles Police Department worked 10 years ago. A 43-year-old legal secretary was raped in her home as her son slept in another room. The attacker forced the woman to destroy evidence by cleaning herself.

“Given the way everything happened,” Detective Marcia said, “I knew in my gut that this was a repeat offender and he was going to strike again.”

Detective Marcia said he had rushed the woman’s rape kit to the department’s crime lab but was told to expect a processing delay of more than a year. He drove the kit to the state’s DNA testing laboratory in Sacramento, about 350 miles north. But a backlog there prevented testing for four months.

During that time, the rapist broke into the homes of a pregnant woman and a 17-year-old girl and sexually assaulted them.