THE WEEKLY HOWL IS GETTING READY FOR THE BIG GAME

Pseudoscience: The Super Bowl is this Sunday and the New England Patriots are once again playing for the Lombardi Trophy. Tom Brady will be making his ninth Super Bowl start and play for his sixth championship. He is still at the top of his game in his 40’s and he has some thoughts about why he has been able to compete at such a high level for so long. From Vox:

Brady eats a mostly organic, local, and plant-based diet with no highly processed foods. In the morning, he starts with 20 ounces of “water with electrolytes,” then a fruit smoothie, and after working out, more water and a protein shake. Lunch is typically fish and vegetables. Afternoon snacks consist of fruits, protein bars, and more protein shakes; dinners include more vegetables and sometimes soup broth.

Even more notable than what Brady eats is what he doesn’t. He avoids alcohol, as well as gluten-containing bread and pasta, breakfast cereal, corn, dairy, foods that contain GMOs, high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, sugar, artificial sweeteners, soy, fruit juice, grain-based foods, jams and jellies, most cooking oils, frozen dinners, salty snacks, sugary snacks, sweetened drinks, white potatoes, and prepackaged condiments like ketchup and soy sauce.

Tom Brady has had an amazing career but his fitness & nutrition advice is bizarre. There’s not that much wrong with it. He mostly recommends drinking plenty of water, getting plenty of rest, stretching a lot, and eating a pretty sensible diet. Nothing ground-breaking but nothing too controversial either. The bizarre part is the mystical properties that he ascribes to this stuff.

For example, let’s first address his claims about acidic and alkaline foods. Brady suggests that by avoiding certain acidifying foods, like meat, refined grains, or ketchup, you can control your body’s pH balance and improve your health and athletic performance.

The problem here is that pH balance, like the body’s temperature, is very tightly regulated, and diet has little to no impact on it. Instead, your lungs and kidneys keep the body’s pH in check automatically.

“It’s next to impossible — in fact, I can’t think of an instance — where people have been able to change their blood pH with diet,” Stuart Phillips, a professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University, told me. “So there’s zero foundation for the notion that alkaline and acid foods [are] able to do anything to your body.”

“If you actually eat a bunch of baking soda — even if you do that — you don’t change [the pH level] that much,” said Mayo Clinic exercise researcher Michael Joyner.

That means that while avoiding “acidifying” foods may feel good for Brady, it’s not actually going to alter his pH level.

Also:

In addition to the dubious diet and nutrition claims, the book also expounds on a concept called “muscle pliability.” Muscle pliability is different from flexibility, Brady writes. Pliability is “all about lengthening and softening the muscles,” and it can be achieved through “deep-force muscle work.”

Brady says Guerrero, fitness guru friend, does special pliability-enhancing massages, as Brady “rhythmically contracts and relaxes” each muscle. In addition to helping athletes achieve peak performance, Guerrero and Brady believe this can cure many common injuries, from tennis elbow to lower back pain.

When I asked exercise scientists about the concept, they said they’d never heard of it. They also advised against trying to soften one’s muscles. “The last thing an athlete wants is a soft muscle,” Phillips said, explaining that muscles only go soft when they’re underused.

              There are 2 sides of Tom Brady’s fitness & nutrition advice. Side 1 is taking conventional advice and trying to repackage it as something else. Doesn’t “deep-force muscle work” sounds like a massage? They just call it something else and then make some claims that don’t even make any sense. How is pliability different from flexibility? The other side is more dangerous. It’s the snake oil.

But the unreliable science behind Brady’s routine can be explained at least in part by the fact that Guerrero is behind it. Guerrero has been investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for falsely presenting himself as a medical doctor, and for promoting bogus nutritional supplements.

According to the Boston Globe, Guerrero once marketed a drink “that protects your brain from the consequences of sports-related traumatic brain injury,” which Brady endorsed. Together, the pair opened up the TB12 Sports Therapy Center, outside the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium, which brings many of the concepts outlined in the book to life for athletes seeking a fix. So the book is just the latest fruit of a dubious partnership — one that has the whiff of science without actually having anything to do with it.

              He is also opposed to weight-lifting, instead preferring to strength-train using resistance bands. I guess lifting weights will make your muscles too hard. As a society, we are addicted to learning the secrets of people’s success when a lot of the time the most successful people don’t understand how they succeeded. Tom Brady’s longevity is mostly a product of being on a well-coached team that has always had a good offensive line and the NFL changing the rules to protect quarterbacks. It’s not a coincidence that Drew Brees is still playing some of his best football at 40. Brady has avoided concussions and other injuries by not getting hit not by drinking magic water. And I hate to see a high-profile athlete muddy the waters of fitness advice with this crap. It’s stuff like this that makes fitness & nutrition seem like such a black box to most people. 

Fitness Marketing: Michelob Ultra will be running 2 ads during the Super Bowl on Sunday. One of them will be another fitness-focused ad from the beer brand. From WebWire:

Today, Michelob ULTRA unveiled its new Super Bowl commercial, reinforcing that while there’s an abundance of artificial in the world, your beer is one thing that shouldn’t be. With no artificial flavors or colors and only 95 calories and 2.6 carbs, Michelob ULTRA believes being human is about being fit and fun. In the :30 commercial that will air on Super Bowl Sunday, the robots featured outperform humans at everything except one critical moment: enjoying a superior light beer.  

“Reminding people who are physically active and fans of beer that balance is possible has always been our mission, and we’re excited to bring this message to the Super Bowl stage,” said Azania Andrews, vice president of Michelob ULTRA. “As the fastest growing beer brand we believe we are the beer of this decade, and the next, and we can’t wait to show America what we’re up to this year, beginning with Super Bowl.”

              This is not a new approach for Michelob, who has been pioneering fitness marketing for several years now. It’s interesting to watch them hone their approach though. Previous ad campaigns showed people working out and then kicking back with a few cold ones. Michelob clearly wanted to go after a certain demographic. This ad makes it much more explicit: What’s the point of all that working out if you can’t enjoy yourself a little bit? As fitness marketing grows, I’m excited to see how creative the advertising gets.

Wearables: Google missed the boat on smartwatches. The tech giant believed in wearables but had committed its focus to Google Glass, a product that completely bombed with consumers but is now finding life as an enterprise product. Now that smartwatches are taking off, Google has to do something to catch up with Apple. They decided to pursue a path of carefully considered acquisitions/partnerships with smaller companies that have already been developing hardware. From Wired:

Google and the Fossil Group announced earlier today that the tech giant is acquiring some of Fossil’s smartwatch intellectual property, suggesting Google may be making its own competitor to the Apple Watch, or, as wishful pundits refer to it, a Pixel watch. It’s not an outlandish idea: As first reported in Wareable, Fossil Group executive vice president and chief digital officer Greg McKelvey says the $40 million deal will result in the launch of “a new product innovation that’s not yet hit the market.” Google buying up talent as it ramps up hardware efforts is also not unprecedented: In early 2018, it spent $1.1 billion to buy a significant chunk of the HTC smartphone team that had helped develop Google’s Pixel phones.

But Google’s $40 million buy of some of Fossil’s smartwatch tech also says a lot about the broader smartwatch market. In short: Fitness has been driving this whole category of technology, more so than fashion. And it underscores the challenges that fashion brands like Fossil face as they try to incorporate more technology into their products, spending millions to build in-house tech teams that will make their already-wearable stuff more useful.

I can’t say that this is a bad strategy. Partnering with other companies is a good way to get up to speed quickly. What makes me think that Google won’t recover from this is that I don’t think that they appreciate how committed Apple is to smartwatches. Google reminds me of Microsoft 20 years ago. Both companies were used to throwing their weight (and money) around. They didn’t always have to be on the cutting edge of innovation because they had such enormous resources to put to use. Microsoft didn’t come up with computer spreadsheets or internet browsers. They saw someone else have success with those and then bullied them out of the market. Everything was fine until Microsoft picked a fight with someone their own size. They missed the whole mobile market, which is right in character for them. The difference was this time, they couldn’t bully Apple and Google. It’s going to be very hard for Google to catch up to Apple in smartwatches. Apple has more money, more expertise in hardware, and is committed to the success of the Apple Watch. Google is trying to figure out how to compete in this segment. And this quote doesn’t bode well for them:

Fossil Group’s McKelvey agreed that health and fitness tracking are driving demand for smartwatches. He said that while the company will always be focused on fashion and design, it will be “leaning into” sport devices this year and next. He seemed undaunted by Apple’s dominance in smartwatches. “We’re a small company,” he said. “We only need 5 percent of this market and we’re still in the game.”

              That makes sense for Fossil. They are a relatively small company (at least relative to Apple). But that lack of grand ambition would be a disaster for Google (and parent company Alphabet).  

Sports: It’s no secret that football is a dangerous sport. Not anymore. However, most people believe that the danger stems from the actual playing of the sport, which is plenty dangerous. There is also a hidden danger: the team’s strength and conditioning programs. This would sound ridiculous if 28 college football players had not died in workouts since 2000 and the NCAA sounds like it might want to start doing something about this. From The Sporting News:

The NCAA’s board of governors has given initial approval to a measure aimed at preventing non-traumatic deaths in offseason workouts, Sporting News has learned. It is expected be enacted this spring following an amendment process.

The document outlines how schools should acclimate student-athletes into workouts following low-activity periods, which carry greater risk of injury or death because players have not yet adjusted to strenuous drills. It would also discourage the use of intensive workouts as a form of punishment, and establish how to properly diagnose and treat heatstroke.

Fourteen medical organizations, including the National Athletic Trainers’ Association and the Korey Stringer Institute — which strives to prevent sudden death among athletes at all levels — are reviewing the proposal and suggesting amendments. Brian Hainline, chief medical officer of the NCAA’s Sports Science Institute, said roughly half the organizations involved in the process have approved it, and the rest are expected to deliver formal reviews by Jan. 31. Hainline said he expects the document will be officially enacted and published by late spring.

“It’s a huge leap forward," Hainline told SN, "because frankly, and we state this in the document, the vast majority of these non-traumatic catastrophic deaths and injuries are preventable.”

It’s really sad that the NCAA has to intervene here. Football teams need to be told how to not kill their own kids during workouts. This isn’t hard, this is common sense.

(1) Don’t make work-outs into anything other than a work-out. Don’t make them into team-building exercises or manhood tests or a roster management tool. You work-out so you can get better at your position and your sport. That’s it. Strength & Conditioning coaches should design work-outs to make athletes better at their sport, not as a punishment.

(2) Accept that the athletes on a football team are very different from each other. Don’t expect 300 pound athletes to be able to do the same things as 180 pound athletes and vice versa.

(3) If someone is showing the signs of exhaustion or heat stroke, end their work-out immediately and have someone attend to them.

No one should ever die in a work-out. No one should ever be severely injured either. There has been a lot of discussion about how to make the sport of football safer. There needs to be more discussion on how to make preparing for the sport safer as well.

Cycling: Gizmodo reviewed the Peloton Tread this week. The Tread is Peloton’s expansion into treadmill classes following on its success with cycling. It carries a price tag that is double that of the bike and weighs over three times as much.

It took three Peloton delivery men to wrestle this thing into my moderately sized, only somewhat cluttered apartment in Brooklyn. They uttered phrases like, “This thing is like a tank,” and “Oh god my back.” Which makes sense because this thing has a footprint of 6 feet by 2.7 feet, and weighs a whopping 455 pounds. My janky floorboards bent a little under the weight. It dominates my living room. We had to move our TV distinctly off center to accommodate it. My tiny dog sometimes stares at the large contraption in senile bewilderment.

It’s also extremely loud. Of course, you’d never expect a treadmill to be quiet, but the Peloton Tread still isn’t the most subtle device. The ground shook when I ran, and things on my coffee table came precariously close to falling off. That makes sense—this thing goes up to a speedy 12.5 mph. But with its large size and hefty weight, it cements that the Tread isn’t suited to apartment living. I could hear when my roomie was going for a run, and I imagine my neighbors could too.

              Peloton’s marketing always presents its bikes as something to be displayed in the common areas of your house, not tucked away in the basement. This focus on the Peloton bike as a status symbol was recently roasted on Twitter. Peloton wants you to believe that its bike isn’t just a piece of fitness equipment, it’s a status symbol. It is a way to show people that not only are you the type of person who enjoys pushing themselves in high-end cycling classes, you are also way too busy to waste time angling for SoulCycle slots. Plus, you have the cash to shell out for a $2,000 bike. There is a reason that Peloton chooses to present its bike this way and that’s because it is an incredibly powerful marketing message. And it’s made possible by the design of the bike. It is a great-looking piece of equipment.

The Tread’s hulking appearance and bigger noise footprint will likely preclude it from being a tasteful addition to the living room. The thing is a “tank”. Who wants to put a tank on display in their house? So you’re paying twice as much but you have to stick it out in the garage? And how does Peloton rethink their marketing for the Tread? They can’t just replace the bike with the treadmill and reshoot the same ads. It could be a challenge to reach the same customers who bought the bike.  It sounds like Peloton built a great treadmill but it remains to be seen whether there is a market for it. Building a great product is no small feat but that is never a guarantee that it will sell. They are going to face some challenges regarding the pricing and the marketing. I am interested to see how they approach this.  

Gym Class Hero: Childhood obesity is on the rise, school funding is not, and physical education is often one of the first things on the chopping block. I instinctively considered that a bad thing. Our children needed more exercise, not less. Perhaps my instincts were wrong. From The Atlantic:

The paper posits that by subjecting participants—namely low-income kids, as the Fitness Now grants targeted campuses serving disadvantaged populations—to these circumstances on a daily basis, the P.E. requirement made students less inclined to go to school. “These adolescents were not enjoying the daily P.E. requirements and would’ve rather skipped school,” suggests Packham, who as an economist has focused her research on the outcomes of health programs. The Fitness Now program required that students participate in at least 30 minutes of physical education every school day. Schools that took part in the grant received $10,000 on average to help improve their P.E. programs by adding classes, for example, or hiring coaches and fitness instructors. They also used the money to purchase equipment such as stopwatches, jump ropes, and free weights.

According to the study, the program resulted in a roughly 16 percent increase in the number of disciplinary actions for each student. The study also found that the proportion of misbehaving students went up by more than 7 percent.

The findings of the study, which has yet to be published in an academic journal, are limited in scope. Still, the new paper adds much-needed nuance to the body of research that has evaluated the effectiveness of various approaches to P.E., complicating the findings of studies that generally assert the importance of school policies that encourage regular opportunities for physical activity.

It’s hard to argue that a given P.E. program is anything but well intended, particularly when considering that children spend most of their waking hours—and meals—at school, and that childhood obesity is a national crisis. But the kind of strategy taken by many of the Fitness Now schools may not be the most effective way to achieve the purported goals.

              The fact that most physical education classes are archaic is not a surprise but the fact that children hate it that much is. While the statistics are sobering, I also don’t believe that we should throw the baby out with bath water. This means that we need a better approach to integrating some physical activity into our children’s lives. It doesn’t mean that we should just give up on having any form of physical education in our schools. What might a better approach look like?

Justin Cahill, a veteran P.E. educator who’s taught at an Atlanta-area private school for the past decade or so, stresses that it’s the typical application of physical education rather than the fundamental concept that results in bad outcomes. Until the past few years, P.E. classes tended to focus on kids’ acquisition of skills, such as dribbling a ball, and the fulfillment of universal benchmarks, such as the ability to run around a track three times within some specific amount of time. This approach, he says, “breeds stagnation and disinterest—the kids are like, ‘Yeah, this is ridiculous.’” It can also, as Packham’s study suggests, breed resentment: After all, in this “old school” version of P.E., certain kids are bound to struggle.

Cahill maintains that many P.E. programs are high caliber, successful in both engaging students and producing positive health and wellness outcomes. Echoing the findings outlined in Kohl’s book, he says that positive results are contingent on a multifaceted and holistic design—what he defines as programs that inspire children to exercise without realizing they’re exercising, that simply ensure they’re constantly moving, during recess, frequent “brain breaks” to get out “the sillies,” morning jogs, and, yes, regular P.E. class. Positive results are also contingent on experienced, empathetic P.E. teachers—those who know to modify a curriculum to meet a certain student’s needs, and to give kudos to that child who can’t run around the track. After all, research shows that people can get a good workout even when walking, and the more important thing is to create a healthy relationship with exercise that can last for decades.

              The human body is made to move. We can’t expect children to sit all day. It’s unnatural. We need to figure out a way to incorporate physical activity into the school day in some form. I also believe that we need to teach our children how to incorporate fitness into their lives when they get older.

              Change is inevitable. Our economy has shifted from agriculture to manufacturing to information. That has led to an enormous change in our lifestyles as well. But no one every sits you down and explains that to you. That your dad worked in a factory all day so he didn’t need to go to the gym after work but you work in an office and you do. So most people don’t change their lifestyle. They live their lives the way that they saw their parents live their lives but the changing circumstances have wreaked havoc on their waistlines. Physical education is an opportunity to be that sit-down, a chance to explain what it will take to stay in shape as an adult in this country.  I hope that we don’t give up on it.

Tidbits:

-Sam Briggs and James Newbury won the Australian CrossFit Championship

-Superman had some strange fitness advice in the 1940s

-Equinox is spinning its popular treadmill class out into its own studio

-Aaptiv got in on the pop-up gym craze

-The Army Reserve may not be ready for the fitness test by 2020