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Measuring Health Part 4: Fitness ‘F’

Health should be defined along the lines of individual human potential. An actionable definition would go something like “the ability to live at the limits of your fullest potential without any encumbrance now or in a foreseeable future”. Fitness as defined by Greg Glassman and CrossFit–work capacity across broad time and modal domains–should therefore be seen as “applied health”. As such, since fitness at any given time is an accurate measurement of one’s functional ability, our variable ‘F’ should have the heaviest weighting in our Health Index.

Let us begin our discussion of Fitness by reviewing and dispelling several myths and misconceptions about the interrelation between health and fitness. First, is it really necessary to review all of the date which now stares us in the face as far as the importance of exercise in health? By the same token, it should be clear to any sentient being that not only is what we eat important (although we must concede that this may differ across populations) but how much?  Simple carbohydrates, manufactured substances meant to cheaply replace real food, harmful (trans-) fats–it doesn’t matter what KIND of nutrition plan you follow, these are all BAD. As I write this I am recovering from surgery and I am not able to exercise. Does anyone believe that I will NOT gain useless weight if I maintain my pre-operative food intake? This part isn’t rocket science, folks. Coach Glassman says it as well as anyone: “Eat [protein] and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”

Next up is the canard that fitness is simply being able to do something for a very long time. This view, promulgated and propagated by the likes of Outside Magazine and others, is not only insufficient but has been shown to be false as well. In the last couple of years there have been a number of very important studies showing a degradation of heart function in so-called “Ultra” athletes in any area. Decreased cardiac output and an increase in cardiac arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation have been shown to be caused by excess endurance training. Endurance as the sole defining characteristic of fitness is as incomplete as would be strength. One need only look at the life expectancy of the strongest humans on record to see that strength in and of itself is not sufficient to produce health.

The question of what constitutes fitness is one that has been answered, at least insofar as health is concerned. It is not enough to be able to run or bike or swim long distances if you cannot also lift heavy things, including your own body. In the same vein one is not truly fit if one can deadlift or squat 3X his or her own bodyweight but cannot run a mile in under 15:00. One must have some measure of BOTH. As such the inescapable conclusion is that Greg Glassman is correct when he says that fitness equals work capacity across broad time and modal domains. You must be able to lift heavy things over a short distance when necessary, but also possess the ability to carry lighter things a longer way for a longer time as well. While I am not naive enough to expect that this will be accepted without spirited debate, when it comes to any measurements of health now available, all arguments to the contrary are not supportable. Glassman has won this battle.

As an aside, this should once and for all put to rest the myth of the “healthy obese”. What good is it to be happy, ‘W’ off the charts, with a stratospheric ‘M’ because all of your bloodwork is perfect, to go with your BP of 120/70, if your joints will cave under pressure decades sooner than they need to? You simply cannot escape the reality that health requires physical fitness.

If fitness can be described as “applied health”, it stands to reason that it will have the greatest contribution to our eventual Health Index. As such it is especially important that our chosen tests meet the criteria outlined in Part 1, that the measurement be as broadly accessible in all ways as possible. In the purest sense we would be able to measure an individual’s “work capacity”, the totality of his or her expression of fitness as measured by many tests covering different loads, distances traveled, and time. In CrossFit we talk of this as the “area under the curve” of a graph that records Power (lbs-ft. per second) on the X axis and Time (in minutes) on the Y. In a perfect world this would be part of every individuals ongoing pursuit of health, but alas, even in the CrossFit world where a very committed everyone records everything, this has proven to be problematic. In designing a series of tests to be applied to the broadest possible swath of humanity this ideal must yield to a more pragmatic approach.

What, then, should we measure, and how? Let us first propose a couple of general characteristics of the tasks in our test and then see what fits the bill. We should test an individual’s ability to move from one place to another under their own power–running is a fundamental human trait and should be part of our evaluation. Likewise, the ability to pick something up off the ground is a pretty basic, everyday movement and would qualify as our test of strength. Lastly, in the U.S. we have a storied heritage from the 1960′s, The Presidential Council Fitness Challenge (PCFC), in which candidates are tested on their ability to perform calisthenic exercises for both speed and endurance. It would be fitting to include something that evokes this historical element.

Once again I anticipate a vigorous debate about the particular elements we include. I’ll go first. We can reward both speed and endurance by starting with a timed run in which the result is distance traveled. The most common example of this comes from athletic programs and the military: a 12:00 timed run for distance. We live in the U.S.; the unit is yards. Pick up something heavy? Sure sounds like a deadlift to me. Any deadlift you wish, standard or sumo, will do. My bias is that a lifting belt is just fine, but except in very special circumstances (e.g. one-armed subject) I would say that straps to help you grip the bar are not a good idea, especially for the very inexperienced subject.

After giving considerable thought to the exercises and format in the original PCFC I think we should simplify the test while at the same time bringing it into the modern fitness world. In the PCFC one sought a maximum number of reps in 2:00 of pull-ups, 2:00 of sit-ups, and 2:00 of push-ups. What exactly are we testing with sit-ups that reflects true fitness? I would favor swapping out sit-ups for air squats. With a nod to CrossFit and Greg Glassman’s outsized contributions to this discussion, let’s use the format made famous by the CrossFit WOD “Cindy” with a small adjustment. To test our subject’s ability to perform bodyweight movements and move quickly, repeats of the triplet of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats in 6:00, counting as our result the total number of repitions achieved.

There you have it. A definition of “Health” and “Healthy”. The introduction of the three variables that go into the measurement of “Health”: traditional medical values ‘M’, emotional well-being ‘W’, and Fitness ‘F’. Next I will address how we will value each of these measures, and then ultimately how they will be combined to give us a meaningful, actionable health measurement ‘H’.

 

Measuring Health Part 2:The Traditional Metric ‘M’

Any measurement of health must provide some sort of predictive value with regard to the likelihood that one will remain healthy. While the entire idea of screening tests is fraught with controversy–both false positives and false negatives bring with them real risks–there are still a number of health measurements in the realm of traditional medical care that have a proven value when trying to predict downstream adverse health events. The trick, of course, is to decide which ones matter, filter that group to come up with tests that are as close to universally available as possible, and then decide how much weight each particular test in the group of survivors should receive in the single cumulative metric that is then created. This measurement, call it “M”, will be one of the variables in our calculated health measurement.

Let’s start with the simplest of all medical inquiries, a medical history. More specifically, let’s include a brief family history in our calculation of M. While it is becoming increasingly easy to obtain a very accurate genetic profile that identifies very specific health risks, these genetic tests are both controversial and expensive. Until the very real societal issues of knowing your exact genome and the risks it includes have been worked out by both ethicists and elected government, we should take a simpler and more narrow approach and ask two very simple questions: Has anyone in your family died from heart disease? Has anyone in your family died from cancer? Equally simple follow-up questions (How young were they? What kind of cancer) would allow us to add risk (reduce M) or ignore the historical note since the disease is not hereditary.

From here we move to an equally spartan individual medical history. Again, just two questions in this part: Do you smoke? Do you drink alcohol? The negative effect of smoking on an individual’s health, both in the present and future tense, must be accounted for in any measurement of health. It weighs so heavily on what we know about future risks that we will see it as a negative integer in M. Too many studies to count exist pointing out the deleterious effect of excess alcohol consumption to count. One compelling study, The Eight Americas Study in PloS One, found alcoholism to be the single most powerful lifestyle variant after smoking when predicting the life expectancy of groups studied. A recently published study of Harvard men found that alcoholism was the greatest second greatest influence on the happiness of the men studied, just behind the presence of loving friendships. Unlike smoking, however, there is a volume component to alcohol consumption. Indeed, a modest intake actually INCREASES longevity, while no intake DECREASES longevity. So M will see a small bump from moderated alcohol intake, an equally small decrease for teetotalers, and a dramatic negative effect from heavy alcohol intake.

So far we’ve managed to obtain some variables underlying M through the use of simple inquiry, costing only the time it takes a subject to fill out a questionnaire. At least two other variables are as accessible and inexpensive: blood pressure (BP) and a measurement of body habits. Once upon a time you had to visit a doctor or hospital to get your blood pressure checked. Now? Heck, for $20 you can buy a reasonable accurate BP monitor and take your BP at home! Minute Clinics in pharmacies, health clinics in the workplace, and coin-operated machines in the local Mall now make it easy to get a BP without visiting a doctor. While there is ongoing controversy in the medical world about what constitutes Hypertension it is safe to say that health risks are higher with a systolic pressure >140 and a diastolic >90. Above or below these levels is our toggle for M, positive or more healthy for lower and the opposite for higher BP.

Using body habitus is controversial, mostly because the measurement that is routinely utilized is so inadequate. The Body Mass Index, or BMI, is wildly inaccurate when it is applied to the fit. 4-time winner of the CrossFit Games Rich Froning, arguably the fittest man on the planet, would be deemed obese at 5′ 10″ and roughly 195 pounds with a % body weight fat of around 4%. Ridiculous, huh? The temptation, of course, is to use % BW fat as the preferred method of measuring body composition risk, but measurements that are accurate enough to be useful tend to be very expensive and difficult to access. On the other hand, all you need to determine the waist/hip ratio is an 89 cent paper tape measure and a calculator. A waist/hip ratio of >1.0 is associated with an increased risk to health from myriad metabolic illnesses including diabetes and heart disease, especially in men. Greater health in M for measurements under 1.0, and progressively less as that number increases.

It is impossible to utilize all that modern medicine has to offer when it comes to measuring health without spending a little bit of money. Several simple blood tests can be obtained with or without the input of a physician. The presence or control of diabetes can be ascertained with a HbA1c and a fasting glucose level. In the presence of a normal HbA1c an elevated fasting glucose may indicate a problem with insulin sensitivity, so it is important to include both. While it is far from settled whether or not it is cholesterol itself which is responsible for heart disease there is simply too much evidence that serum lipids can help predict cardiac events to leave them out of any health measurement. Our basic health index should therefore include the basic measurement of total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides, and M should reflect the negative effect of elevated Total Cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides and the positive effect of a high HDL.

How should we put all of these together to come up with our traditional health variable, M? This one is fairly simple; there are a number of “risk factor” measurements online that are good models. I envision a rather simple form on which one would add up weighted values for the measurements above, arriving at a straight forward mathematical sum. The final formula is being developed with the assistance of cardiologists at my medical school alma mater, the University of Vermont.

 

Choices: Eating Healthy OR…

“Eating healthy is too expensive.” How often have you heard some version of that phrase. Whether it be Zone, Paleo, Whole 30, or just “stay out of the middle of the grocery store”, this is uttered with some degree of exasperation and oppression with a kind of mind-numbing, self-fulfilling frequency. There is an overarching sense of deprivation here, a feeling that it’s just impossible to find the money to eat lean protein or fresh fruits and vegetables.

How so? Per the folks at Whole Foods, regularly skewered for being too expensive (seriously, they sell fancy potatoes), on average we in America spend 7% of our disposable personal income–that’s SEVEN–on food. 50 years ago that number was 16%. We now spend less than 1/2 of our after-tax income on food compared with what we spent 50 years ago.

And eating well is too expensive.

If we dig deeper into that stat alone we see that modern food production has decreased the cost of food relative to both income and inflation. The cost of producing food of all kinds has risen much more slowly than income. Why? Partly because junk carb-laden food is cheap. High-fructose corn syrup costs a fraction of grain sugar. Corn-fed protein with or without pharmaceuticals is grown faster and cheaper than grass-fed. Stuff like that. Less expensive to produce/incomes risen over 50 years at a greater rate across the entire spectrum, top to bottom.

How then is it too expensive to eat a more healthy diet. We have 9% of our after-tax income to play with, right? Even I can do that math. Is some other necessity (shelter, transportation, medical care, etc) eating that up? What are we doing with that 9% that we can’t find some of it to eat better? Ah, Grasshopper, now we begin to see. It’s a ‘Nando thing, it’s superficial. It’s not how healthy you are, it’s how you look, or feel, or something like that.

Some stuff might be more expensive; it probably really is more expensive to put a roof over your head in Manhattan nowadays, both the Island and the Beach. The seemingly obvious culprits are actually false targets (eg. healthcare which for this audience represents only a tiny % of new cost compared with 50 years ago because of insurance, govt. programs, etc.). Nope, it’s how we CHOOSE to spend that freed-up 9% .

Think about that household in the 1960′s or even the 70′s. Average of 6 people under that roof. One car. One TV. One radio. Once purchased all data was free. A pair of shoes and a pair of boots. Sneaks if you were a jock. You didn’t get your hair done if you were a guy, you got a haircut. You didn’t get your acrylics touched up every 2 weeks; if you wanted long nails you grew ‘em. Stuff like that.

Fast forward to today and think about the stuff you’ve acquired, stuff you are convinced you can’t live without, stuff that costs money, cash that you choose to spend every single day. The ratio of drivers to cars in a household is seldom less than 1.5/1. The ratio of phones to people over the age of 10 is seldom less than 1/1, often more than 1/1 if you add in a landline upstairs, downstairs, and in every bathroom.  It’s not enough to have a cellphone, or even a cellphone with an unlimited text plan, nope, it’s gotta be a SMARTphone that will let you post your thoughts on today’s weather in Bimini to FB. Right now, from anywhere. If you don’t have Netflix available on each of the 4 flat-screen TV’s in the house you are considered a Luddite.

Listen, I certainly am not saying that all that stuff isn’t great, that it’s not a ton of fun and really convenient (as I type on one of the Apple products that literally litter our household, through my WiFi network, in front of my LightBright lamp, in the bathroom), or anything like that. What I most certainly AM saying, though, is that people who whine about how hard it is to afford to eat better almost always do so via a FB post from their iPhone 5 while sitting in the salon having their hair done, hungover from too much Bellevedere they consumed last night while noshing on Doritos smothered in Cheez-Wiz.

9 %. The stark reality is that we have let our things become more important than ourselves. We are choosing Apples alright, just not the ones we find in the outer aisle of Whole Foods.

 

The Most Dangerous Man In American Healthcare

The most dangerous man in American health care is Greg Glassman. That’s right, the man who will make the biggest difference in making our country healthier, and thereby reducing the cost of providing health care, is a fitness trainer from Santa Cruz California. And you have no idea who he is.

That’s okay, though; you’re in good company. There are lots of really important, really influential people in American healthcare who have never heard of Greg Glassman. Donald Berwick, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services? Not a clue. Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the vaunted Cleveland clinic foundation? Nope, never heard of him. So it goes, as well, for the presidents and executive vice presidents of all the various and sundry medical “letter” organizations like the AMA, the American Association of ophthalmology, and the like. The man who might hold the key to economic healthcare salvation is not even a blip on the margins of the healthcare establishment’s radar screens.

So what’s the big deal? Why is Greg Glassman the most dangerous man in American healthcare? There are two reasons, actually. First, he is right. Glassman has identified not only the most fundamental and foundational problem with the health of Americans, but he has also discovered, defined, and implemented the solution. Americans are not fit. There is an appalling lack of physical fitness in the populace. Fat and slow, or skinny–fat and weak, we are a nation of the unfit. What Science Daily calls “frailty” in an article linking a lack of fitness to poor health outcomes (ScienceDaily.com/releases/2011/04/110426122948.htm), Glassman calls decrepitude. Skinny or fat, how healthy can you be if you can’t get yourself out of a chair without assistance?

Somewhere around 2001 Greg Glassman co–founded a fitness system which he dubbed “Crossfit”(http://www.crossfit.com). He offered  the first actionable definition of fitness ever created: work capacity across broad time and modal domains. How much stuff can you move, how far, how quickly. It’s not enough to be strong, you must also be able to travel long distances. By the same token, it’s not enough to be able to travel long distances if you are not strong enough to lift your own body. This definition led to a measurement of fitness, power output or work.

To achieve this level of fitness Crossett offers the equivalent of a prescription. Exercise should consist of “constantly varied, high intensity, functional movements.” Intensity is the key. Fitness gains are not only magnified but are achieved in the most efficient manner when the exercise is performed at relatively high intensity. Functional movements include fitness standards like running, swimming and biking, but also weight training using major lifts like the deadlift, the clean, and the squat. Crossfit has returned those staples of gym classes in the 60′s, pull-ups, push-ups, and squats, to a prominence not seen since the days of Kennedy’s Presidential Council on Fitness.

Caloric intake matters; you can’t out train a bad diet or a bad lifestyle. Crossfit’s dietary prescription is quite simple: “eat meats and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but NOT BODY FAT.” Crossfit preaches the merits of both quantity and quality when if comes to food. Carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, protein containing all essential amino acids, AND FAT are all essential to producing physical fitness. Food should be seen as fuel and should be measured as such. Even the highest quality foods consumed in the most balanced proportions will produce increased body fat and decreased fitness if taken in too high volume

A funny thing happened on the way to revolutionizing the fitness industry. In addition to increased strength, increased endurance, and decreased body fat, which translated into a dramatically fewer inches and lower dress sizes, it seemed as if everyone who did Crossfit became healthier. Lower cholesterol. Lower resting heart rates. Decreased blood pressure. Elevated moods. It looked like a move away from decrepitude and frailty was actually a move TOWARD health. Toward WELLNESS.  A scientist at heart, Glassman digested this information and in 2008 made the following statement: fitness is a proxy for health. Indeed, Glassman declared that fitness EQUALS health. In this, Greg Glassman is right, or at least more right than not. At a minimum, fitness is the foundation upon which health is built. A healthy nation is one that need not expend countless $Billions on curing diseases that could be prevented by becoming fit. This is the first reason why he is the most dangerous man in American health care.

The second reason is that he doesn’t care.

Greg Glassman is like the little boy standing at the side of the road watching the naked emperor parade by who declares “the Emperor has no clothes!” He is standing there watching a parade of the fat and the weak and he is saying “hey look…they can’t get their butt off the throne!” It’s uncomfortable to hear someone say that, but he doesn’t care; it needs to be said. The standard dietary dogma of high carbohydrate, low-fat diets with little or no meat? A straight ticket to decrepitude! He doesn’t care that statements like that make all of the Oz’s and Pritiken’s sputter and squirm. When asked once upon a time how to gain weight for a movie role Glassman famously responded: “ easy…non–fat frozen yogurt.” It’s no different with exercise. Walking and other low-intensity exercises? Better than nothing, but only almost. Cue the howls of the Jillians and the Jakes, and every glossy, muscly, fitnessy magazine editor in the English speaking world. Glassman is right, and he doesn’t care.

Greg Glassman has looked at what is wrong with the health of Americans and he is willing to say what that is and say it out loud. He is willing to say that we as a people are unfit, and that this is the primary cause underlying our lack of health, and our accelerating need to spend money to cure disease. He is willing to say that the vast majority of the advice that we have received to fix this is flat out wrong, whether it comes from the government or the cover of Fitness Magazine. He is willing to say the the road to economic salvation in American Healthcare leads through the gym, the grocery store, and the kitchen, not to or through something as meaningless as an “Accountable Healthcare Organization” (whatever that may be). Although he is convinced that he is right he is presently spending gobs of his own money studying the effects of the Crossfit prescription on the health of regular people.

Yup, Greg Glassman is right, and he doesn’t care that all of the so–called experts in healthcare don’t know who he is yet, or that they wouldn’t agree with him if they did. Judging by what’s going on in the physical fitness world right now as Crossfit grows 30% PER MONTH, I’d say that makes Greg Glassman the most dangerous man in American healthcare.

Better learn how to spell his name.