Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Fit

The Days of Our Lives

By Tim Olds

Spoiler alert: the next 850 words will tell you exactly how you will live out each day of the rest of your life. If you don’t want to know, stop reading now.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the really interesting stuff. We interviewed 180 adults in Australia and New Zealand across a range of ages from 16 to 96. Over the course of more than 9000 interviews, assisted by use-of-time software, we walked them through what they did the day before, building up a picture of how they spent their time.

Biggest Losers, Biggest Gainers

By Tim Olds

How much weight can we lose or gain, and how quickly?

How much weight can a person lose in a day, do you think? Would 137 kg surprise you? It’s true, but it’s a bit of a trick – it was the result of the removal of a massive abdominal cyst.

Aside from surgery, the limit appears to be about 10 kg per day, and that’s due almost entirely to fluid loss: 9.7 kg from voluntary dehydration in an American, Ron Allen; 8 kg in a superobese patient, a loss accompanied by urine outputs of up to 6 litres per day; and 7 kg by Australian cricketer Dean Jones during a single day’s play (8 hours) while batting under hot, humid conditions in India.


By Tim Olds

Why did André become a giant, and the people of Manus Island the most muscular?

In 1958 in a village north of Paris, a French farmer asked an Irish expat if he could drive his son André to school in his truck. The problem was that, at 12 years old, André was already 191 cm tall and weighed 110 kg, and would not fit into the school bus. “The whole way,” André complained, “he talked about nothing except cricket”.

The Irishman was Samuel Beckett, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Beckett was a minor cricket luminary, having played for Ireland at a time when the Irish were even worse at cricket than they are now.

The Back Roads to Obesity

By Tim Olds

Obesity isn’t just a matter of eating too much of the wrong foods. Several other factors in modern life have been playing a role.

Most of us come to obesity by the highway, zipping past the gyms and stopping off at the fast-food restaurants, but recent research has suggested that some less direct by-ways can unexpectedly lead us to the same place. Environmental pollution, changes in indoor temperature, the age at which women first give birth, prescription drugs, giving up smoking, and too little sleep may also take us there. So let’s buckle up our seat belts and take a drive down some of the new roads to obesity.

Descreening Kids

By Tim Olds

Kids are spending more time in front of screens, but government guidelines have become hopelessly out of date.

Kids spend a lot of time sitting – about 8.5 hours per day, according to a recent 12-nation study. I feel compelled to mention here that Australian kids actually spend less time sitting than any of the other nations in the study – less than 8 hours per day compared with almost 9.5 hours for Chinese kids. Treasure this, because from here on the news for Australian kids gets worse.

Stress, the Iceman and Us

By Tim Olds

The release of stress hormones may have helped our ancient ancestors to survive dangerous situations, but modern stresses are killing us slowly. How do you rate on a common stress scale?

He ate a Palaeo (strictly speaking a Neo) diet, and even at the age of 45 spent his days trekking across the Italian Alps. He was very lean – he had a Body Mass Index of 18.5, right at the bottom of the healthy range. A typical meal was venison, unleavened herb bread and fruit.

But for all these healthy lifestyle habits, Ötzi the Iceman, the 5300-year-old Austrian (or is it Italian?) glacier mummy, was a cardiovascular minefield with calcification in several major arteries.

What Two Experiments that Could Never Be Repeated Tell Us about Weight Loss

By Tim Olds

Starvation and overfeeding studies reveal extreme differences in how we gain and lose weight.

Seventy years ago, 36 men gathered at the University of Minnesota to begin one of the most famous experiments of all time – one that for ethical reasons could not be repeated today. Most of them were Quakers, all were pacifists and conscientious objectors.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was led by the charismatic Ancel Keys, a brilliant polymath with PhDs in oceanography and physiology, and undergraduate degrees in political science and zoology. As a child, Key himself became a subject in another famous experiment, Louis Terman’s 35-year study of extremely gifted children.

Animal vs Human

By Tim Olds

How does the fitness of humans compare with other animals?

If we could go back a million years and pick an evolutionary winner from the zoosphere, humans would have been pretty low on the list. Weak, small, slow of foot, poorly armed in tooth and claw, prone to internecine wars – they really didn’t have much going for them. Clearly other things counted – social groups, opposable thumbs, thermoregulation in chase hunting, upright posture on the savannah, big brains …

Quantify Thyself

By Tim Olds

Fitness devices that track our daily activity are now common, but do they live up to the hype?

Were there a modern version of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, we might find inscribed on the stones there the aphorism

“Quantify thyself”. The Quantified Self movement enjoins us to enlighten ourselves by wearing unobtrusive electronic sensors to track our movements, moods, diet and environment 24/7. Think FitBit, Fuelband, Shine, ActiHeart, Striiv, Zip, Actiwatch, Lumos, Vivofit, Jawbone, Polar, Digiwalker, SenseWear, Actical, GeneActiv, Actigraph, ActivPAL, Pulse … and now the iWatch.

The ideal of the Quantified Self works like this:

Go Hard or Go Home

Is high intensity interval training the latest exercise fad or is there a physiological basis to it?

Exercise trends come and go, and thank goodness for that in most cases. Those unfortunate enough to be my age may recall when lycra midriff tops were popular among men at gyms (admittedly in the 1980s, the decade that style forgot) and when blokes totally lacking coordination like myself were obliged to attempt impossibly complex dance steps in aerobics classes. I’m hoping that core stability, a ridiculous form of exercise based on grown men prancing across the gym floor while holding kettle weights in either hand, will soon also be issued with a “never to be revived” notice.