Sep 26, 2010

Physical activity is pointless

ACCORDING to one expert, your workouts aren't doing much for your waistline. Exercising to lose weight is a waste of time and the only way to shed those unwanted kilos is to eat less. 

After years of studying kilojoule tables, Sydney exercise specialist John Glynn says it would take seven hours of walking every day for a week to lose just one kilogram and only then if the person ate no “bad” food the entire seven days.  That’s distressing news for those who hit the gym or pound the pavement to squeeze into that little black dress for a special occasion.  His findings are backed by research, but what has the medical profession concerned is that people might interpret his claims as a green light to stop exercising altogether.

And Glynn’s assertion that we only need to exercise for 15 minutes two or three times a week flies in the face of national recommendations to exercise for 30 minutes a day – recommendations the medical profession stands by.  Glynn says there are different types of exercise and, while undoubtedly physical activity is necessary for cardiovascular fitness, muscle strength, metabolism, core stability, posture and body shape, it’s useless for losing weight.  According to guidelines for the management of people who are overweight and obese, published by the National Health and Medical Research Council, studies show a modest weight loss with physical activity alone of only 1.8 kilograms over a year doing three to five hours of moderate or vigorous exercise each week.

Exercise vs diet
But when that exercise is combined with a cut in kilojoule intake, the weight loss can be as high as 7.5 kilograms in just 12 weeks.  While diet is more effective for short-term weight loss, evidence suggests a continuing exercise program outweighs the value of diet in the maintenance of weight loss over two or more years.

“In a second or two we can easily eat hundreds of kilojoules – which overweight people do – and it would take hours to exercise those off,” Glynn says.   “The right food choices can reduce our kilojoule intake by thousands every day. It would take over five or six hours of exercise to get the same benefit.
“Each person has their own unique kilojoule reference point, which is the most kilojoules they can eat in a day and still lose weight without the need for any extra physical activity.”

Glynn says that those who exercise to lose weight also tend to pay less attention to their diet, which makes it even more difficult for them to lose weight.  He also says exercise for weight loss is a serious long-term health risk because of the added load on the body’s organs, and that thin people need to exercise more than those who are overweight.

He argues that for years health professionals have misled Australians about the value of exercise because they don’t understand the facts of exercise science.  “We’ve been horribly misled and its time to put a stop to it,” he says.

No need to sweat it out?
Some experts agree that exercise alone will do little for the waistline, but they still advocate a combination of physical activity and diet.

“I share some of the sense of [what Glynn is saying], but you can’t send a signal that you don’t need to exercise,” says Dr Steve Hambleton, federal vice-president of the Australian Medical Association.

“It is probably true to say that it is very tough to exercise your way out of being overweight. Anyone who has a pedometer is disappointed after they do the maths,” he says. “It’s certainly a very important weight-loss mechanism to exercise, but it’s a lot easier to lose weight if you eat the right food and don’t eat the wrong food.”

Glynn also claims that overweight people are at greater risk of injury and are more likely to die younger if they exercise because they will wear out their bodies faster.  But Dr Hambleton says that while overweight people may be at greater risk of injury from exercise, “the risk and benefit is weighted on the side of benefit”.

Professor Stephen Colagiuri, professor of metabolic health at the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise at the University of Sydney, agrees that the weight loss from exercise alone is modest but says it remains an important component.  “If you just set out to exercise without doing anything about your kilojoule intake, it’s highly unlikely that you will lose weight,” he says.

Prevention is better than treatment and that includes watching what we eat, being more active and minimising the time we spend sitting.

“It is genuinely difficult to lose weight and keep it off without doing something drastic like bariatric surgery [gastric banding surgery] if you’ve been overweight for a long time,” Professor Colagiuri says.

Susan Anderson, national director of healthy weight at the Heart Foundation, says it’s careless to suggest that exercise for weight loss is useless.

“It’s irresponsible because movement is fundamental to health and therefore necessary for an individual to achieve and maintain an ideal healthy weight,” Anderson says.

“All overweight people, and adults who are starting or re-starting physical activity and exercise regimes, should consult their doctor before beginning an exercise routine and gradually increase the intensity and duration of their activity. There is abundant evidence that adopting a healthy eating pattern and being physically active can control weight.”

Julie Gilbert, a spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says
weight loss comes from a combination of diet and exercise.

“We know that 70 per cent of weight loss comes from cutting your portion size down and 30 per cent comes from exercise,” she says. “Exercise plays the biggest role, not so much in terms of weight loss, but in terms of helping people to maintain their weight.”

Mixed messages
Gilbert says diet is the most important aspect of weight loss, but if someone is only losing a quarter to half a kilo a week while on a diet, she would look at their physical activity levels.

“The best part about exercise when you’re trying to lose weight is it makes you feel good and when you feel good, you often don’t eat a lot of the treat junk foods.”

The recommended 30 minutes of exercise a day will have no impact on weight loss and those trying to slim down need to do between 60 to 90 minutes of physical activity a day, she says.

Professor Jonathan Shaw, associate director of health services at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, says he is concerned that Glynn’s message could be misinterpreted to mean that all exercise is pointless.

“Exercise certainly has health benefits even if it doesn’t lead to weight loss,” he says. “Starting to lose weight is usually really easy. Most people can get the first three or four kilos off without much effort. One of the reasons it’s challenging to lose more is the body will often try and respond to weight loss by trying to conserve energy… so you need to be pushing yourself to keep that weight off.”

Professor Shaw says it’s important to recognise the health benefits exercise delivers to overweight people who are at greater risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Whether or not it leads to weight loss, exercise can certainly help reduce those risks.

Sep 20, 2010

Passengers to sue Airbus

Passengers on a Qantas flight from Singapore to Perth that twice plunged hundreds of metres - injuring more than 100 people - will sue manufacturer Airbus over a computer malfunction that caused the mishap.

The Airbus A330 had to make an emergency landing in Learmonth in West Australia's north west in 2008 after the mayday alert.

Many passengers and crewmembers on board suffered trauma and physical injury.

Sep 19, 2010

Just don't mention the Hindenburg

AT CARDINGTON Airfield, just south of Bedford, two vast corrugated steel hangers tower over the surrounding area. More than 244 metres long - the length of almost three soccer pitches - and 58 metres high, they are the heroic relics of the once great British airship industry.

Eighty years ago, two mighty vessels, the R100 and the R101, were housed in these great metal behemoths; incredible ''lighter-than-air aircraft'', with customised silver and crockery, Axminster carpeted smoking rooms and portholed cabins, that were designed to sail noiselessly across the Atlantic like aeronautical cruise ships.

Further down the road in this part of East England, housed in a far less spectacular stack of Portakabins, is a group of engineers who are convinced such airships can take to our skies once more. Hybrid Air Vehicles has built a scale prototype of what will soon be the largest flying vessel in the world, a huge balloon made of ultra-lightweight, super-strong polyester on top of a hovercraft landing system. If it works, it could change the future of flight.

Which is why, when you bear in mind the company's grand plans, the Portakabins seem so incongruous. They're only a temporary home but they make the outfit look a bit, well, amateurish. Someone who finds them more than usually annoying is Gordon Taylor. He is the company's marketing man, a softly spoken but fastidious Canadian in a pink shirt, chinos and a red tie covered with frolicking dogs. A wayward tuft of hair gives him the air of an eccentric professor.

For the past 13 years, Taylor has been fighting a battle with investors, governments and the general public over the perception of the airship. ''I've never seen a more peculiar industry than ours,'' he says as he leads me through the makeshift office on a bright mid-June morning. ''There are more nutcases …''

He sighs and sips at his mug of Lady Grey. ''You get what we call 'the giggle factor'. People laugh at lighter-than-air vehicles and the guys who make them, the 'helium heads'. It's taken a long time to overcome that.''

The problem, Taylor admits, is that an airship has a deceptively simple, cartoonish appearance. It looks like a blobby thing with a motor, ''a party balloon with bits on'', as Mike Durham, the heavy-browed, sardonic chief engineer puts it. ''We're regularly sent unsolicited proposals telling us how to build airships,'' Durham says wearily. ''They're either from 85-year-olds who were once engineers in the pencil business, or little design companies who think they've had a brilliant new idea and this is how it should be done.''

This may not sound like a serious problem, but it is. Fred in his shed in Hertfordshire isn't likely to put forward a proposal to the government to build a new aeroplane, because big companies like Airbus and Boeing are so well established. But he and dozens of other mad inventors will merrily deluge the government with their ideas for a marvellous new airship. It makes the industry look silly and brings the credibility of the whole business into question, which in turn frightens away would-be investors.

Airship amateur hour is especially frustrating for the team at Cardington because they're in the process of creating something that absolutely could not be sketched on the back of a beer mat. And Taylor is most particular about the nomenclature of the new development: it's not an ''airship'', he says, it's a ''hybrid air vehicle''.

''It's a new vehicle. It's a hybrid because we're combining helium lift, aerodynamic lift, a hovercraft landing system and vectored thrust. If you can get beyond the word airship - because that has a lot of history - people think about them differently.''

Whatever you want to call it, the new technology has just won the company (or rather, its US defence contractor ally Northrop Grumman) a contract with the US Department of Defence to the tune of half a billion dollars. In just 12 months, the team at Cardington must build a 91-metre-long surveillance vehicle capable of staying airborne for 21 days at a time. It will be known as the LEMV (Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle).

The LEMV will hover above Afghanistan at 6100 metres, equipped with the sort of super-powerful cameras that can read a signature on a letter from miles away. It will be, Taylor says, ''an unblinking eye'', recording every move made on the ground. In theory, no one will be able to plant a roadside bomb - a device that has claimed the lives of so many US and allied soldiers - without the cameras seeing who did it and, more importantly, where they came from. And, if the LEMV is a success, it could prove to be a tipping point, ushering in a new age of airships.

When I first spoke to Taylor on the phone he gave a seductive account of what long-distance travel might be like in a SkyCat, the civilian version of the airship that the company has designed.

''Imagine you're with 400 of your best friends,'' he said, almost convincing me that I had 400 best friends. ''You go to Richmond Park International. At 11 o'clock on Thursday you get on board the SkyCat200. There are hundreds of staterooms on it and you dinner dance your way across the Atlantic. At 2 o'clock on Friday afternoon you're getting off at the East River in New York. You've travelled 3000 miles overnight and there's no jet lag.''

Ever since the first hot air balloon took off in Annonay, southern France, 227 years ago, the sky has rarely been empty of dirigibles, sources of great wonder and fear to their earthbound watchers. The earliest hydrogen balloon took off from the Champ de Mars in Paris in 1783. When it touched down 45 minutes later in a field beside the village of Gonesse, terror-stricken townsfolk tore it to pieces with pitchforks and scythes.

It was almost 100 years later before the first true airship - an engine-powered navigable balloon - lifted off. People experimented with airships powered by foot pedals and propellers and electric motors. Some were killed, but the idea of the airship was always compelling enough to survive.

Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin founded his eponymous company in 1896. With him, the age of the giant airships began and in Germany zeppelins became a national obsession. They seemed to possess an almost mythic power: like ''fabulous silver fish'', said Dr Hugo Eckener, head of Zeppelin from 1917, ''floating quietly in the ocean of air''.

In 1937, though, the spell was broken. On May 6, the Hindenburg zeppelin arrived at Lakehurst, New Jersey, after an Atlantic crossing it had made many times before. On this occasion there was one key difference: the United States had refused to supply the swastika-adorned airship with helium, so it was filled instead with hydrogen. As welcoming cameras rolled it was suddenly consumed by fire, stripped to a skeleton in a blazing instant.

A description by one radio reporter went around the world: ''Get out of the way!'' he screamed into his microphone. ''It's burning, bursting into flames! This is terrible! It is one of the worst catastrophes in the world! Oh the humanity! Those passengers! I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen.''

With this disaster, the long winter of the popular airship began. The unofficial motto of the modern airship industry could be, ''Don't mention the Hindenburg!''

Gordon Taylor tries to put things in perspective. ''Just remember that the Hindenburg happened at around the time of the Titanic. But they didn't have a camera on the Titanic, did they? Think about that when you look around the QE2,'' he says.

The Titanic comparison is much loved at Cardington.

Even before Hindenburg happened, a long shadow already lay over the British airship industry. Standing by the hangars at Cardington facing south, you see the land undulate ever so slightly, rising to the meanest of hills. On its maiden voyage in 1931, His Majesty's Airship R101, a colossal vehicle almost 244 metres long, barely cleared those hills.

Preparations for the inaugural flight had been hastily made and the ship was leaking large amounts of hydrogen. The R101 managed to make it across the Channel, but at 2.08am on October 5, about 70 kilometres north of Paris, it hit high ground and crashed, killing 48 people.

Some 40 years later, a young naval architect named Roger Munk found himself in possession of a book called The Millionth Chance. It was an account of the events leading up to the crash of the R101. (When Lord Thomson, the head of the air ministry, was asked whether he thought anything could go wrong with the airship's flight, he answered: ''But for the millionth chance, no.'')

Munk died at the beginning of this year at the age of 63, but he is integral to the story of the hybrid air vehicle. After he read that book, in 1971, he went to meet Lord Ventry, who had been a passionate advocate of airships for decades. He sketched out all the problems that Munk would have to conquer to make the vessels viable and that's what Munk spent the next 40-odd years doing.

His efforts made him the father of modern airships. Today, nearly everyone who works at Cardington talks about Munk's almost evangelical belief in the technology. One of those admirers is senior aerodynamicist Ken Nipress. His manner is that of a matter-of-fact Yorkshireman. ''We like what we do,'' he says, ''and we think it has got a future.''

In a rectangular white marquee, I am shown that future; a 15-metre-long, roughly oblong balloon pumped up with helium. This is the LEMV prototype. A faint plasticky smell comes off the balloon's synthetic, off-white skin. Every 10 minutes or so a machine that sounds like a vacuum cleaner whirs into life, topping up the pressure inside the oblong. Lying in the marquee it looks like a sick whale on a respirator.

But appearances are deceptive. The technology behind the prototype is complex. The calculations it takes to work out the flow of air around a hybrid air vehicle are almost too Byzantine for a computer to process.

''We've got an office full of guys who've all come out of the aircraft industry and we need every ounce of their brainpower to design these,'' Durham says.

The material used for the ''envelope'' (the balloon) is ultra-lightweight, UV-proofed, super-strong polyester. The shape is engineered to provide its own lift - the air that rushes over the curved top of the vehicle creates a vacuum that pulls the whole thing up. It flies with fibre-optic controls, which turn physical steering movements into light signals that pulse down thin strands of glass and tell the rudders which way to steer. It's fuel efficient and could run with virtually zero carbon dioxide emissions.

When I ask Dave Burns, the taciturn test pilot, what it feels like to fly in an airship, he turns poetic. ''It's just, it's a feeling of freedom. And the detail you can see: you can fly over the field out there a hundred times and see different things every time.''

In strong, windy weather, it moves like a ship on a rough sea. Gusts of wind affect it as little as a flea biting an elephant. Although EU regulations mean that seat belts are compulsory, it's a smooth ride.

There's a niggling worry I have about the LEMV squatting over Afghanistan: surely a giant white balloon will be vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, that's something they've thought about a great deal at Cardington. Indeed, they've been thinking about it for many years now, because they also designed ships that were to be deployed over Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

At that time they tested a full-sized airship against a range of artillery, including surface-to-air missile. What they learnt was this: the airship is almost invincible to attack. Helium is an inert gas, so it doesn't explode.

The pressure inside the envelope is so low that when a hole is made, say by a bullet, air seeps out slowly rather than rushing out catastrophically. Missiles need something hard to connect with if they're going to explode, but an airship is accommodating, not hard-shelled.

And what of helium, the scarcity of which damned the Hindenburg? If lighter-than-air vehicles were to become a regular form of transport, would any country be in a position to monopolise the new resource? Could helium wars, commanded by squeaky-voiced generals, break out?

Taylor thinks not. Helium is a major component of our atmosphere, but its tiny particles are hard to get a grip on. One day we may develop the technology to extract it from the air (although, Taylor adds, ''not in my lifetime and not in my son's lifetime''). Until then there are massive naturally occurring stockpiles of the gas in the US, Poland, Russia and Canada. Recently, a huge reserve of helium was discovered in the Gulf state of Qatar. Currently, the lighter-than-air market uses only 2 per cent of all the helium bought in the world. Most of that is used to blow up party balloons.

One other supposed impediment to the development of the airship has been its relative lack of speed. ''If you go to an airforce, you get pilots,'' Taylor says. ''Pilots like to fly fast things that go zoom and boom.'' But that machismo doesn't mean there isn't a market for the stately globetrotting airship. The hybrid air team have speculatively mocked up grand interiors for such vessels, which could be competitors to the great ocean liners.

Realistically, SkyCats would be most useful in the transport of heavy loads - the largest SkyCat can carry up to 200 tonnes - to harsh environments, like the Arctic territories of Nunavut. ''The average age there is 21,'' Taylor says, ''and it's got the highest suicide rate, highest drug rate, highest sickness rate in Canada by a long shot. They've got nothing - this vehicle will save their lives.''

For now, the men of Hybrid Air Vehicles must work at frightening speed to deliver their LEMV to the US government. Taylor expects the team to expand to almost three times its existing size.

Roger Munk used to say that the giant sheds at Cardington weren't much use for anything other than airships or giraffe farming. Soon, perhaps, his team will bring airships back to their rightful home.

Sep 18, 2010

'Meet Eater' garden gets fed by Facebook posts

MEET "Meet Eater", a Queensland garden being kept alive by Facebook.

Planted by University of Queensland student Bashkim Isai, Meet Eater is in the grounds of the State Library of Queensland in Brisbane — and it has quite the fan club.

The garden is rigged with a system that monitors social interaction on the internet and feeds or waters it in response.

Giving a new meaning to the term "news feed", Meet Eater is watered whenever someone writes on its Facebook wall or stops by to say hello.

The garden also answers some messages from fans and "cries" when it wants attention.

By giving the garden a Facebook page, Mr Isai told he was "augmenting a personality on top of it".

Mr Isai said the aim of the project was "to see if (the garden) would become a social actor in our lives and to see if we could interact with something that doesn't talk back to us".

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"The one thing that we wanted to see was whether engagement can be sustained," he said.

"Are people aware of how much time they spent online and whether over-engagement was an issue or even possible."

The answer is yes, over-engagement is possible. Meet Eater has been killed with kindness twice already.

So many people inundated the Facebook wall with messages that the garden was overwatered and subsequently drowned.

"Ohh no more wall messages today," read some of Meet Eater's final words.

"Have had a little too much to eat. I don't want to drown! Add me as a friend and talk to me in a few hours."

Mr Isai said the garden would occasionally ask for quiet time when it was getting too much attention — but it would often be ignored.

"It's been receiving too much love," he said.

Meet Eater's number of friends has risen dramatically as it becomes known around the world, but Mr Isai said that wasn't always a good thing.

"People are very willing to jump on to a fad," he said.

"Since Meet Eater became 'famous' the quality of posts and conversations has decreased.

"People used to ask meaningful questions and had great conversations with Meet Eater, but now it seems there are many more generic posts."

Mr Isai plans to keep the project going until the end of the year. He has altered the measure of water that is dispersed with each interaction and hopes this will limit the number of re-plantings.

Meet Eater currently already has about 6000 Facebook friends.

Sep 12, 2010

Old age doesn't start at 65 - scientists

A NEW report could force policymakers to change their assessments of when people should retire and how great a burden they might be on health care providers.

Scientists at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, based near Vienna, said a person reaching 65 should no longer be considered old - and that the burden expected to be caused by an increasingly ageing population was overestimated because people are much fitter and healthier into retirement age than they were decades ago.

IIASA scientists developed new measures of aging that take changes in disability status and longevity into account, which could allow governments to reassess retirement ages and work out what health provisions would be needed.

Currently, assessments are based on UN ageing forecasts that include the proportion of the population that is 65 years and older, as well as the old age dependency ratio, which considers the number of people dependent on others when they reach age 65.

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But IIASA study found that as people live healthier lifestyles, many do not require significant care until years later.

“Those measures are based on fixed chronological ages, and this can generate misleading results,” Dr Warren Sanderson, one of the study's authors, said.

“When using indicators that assume fixed chronological ages, it’s assumed that there will be no progress in factors such as remaining life expectancies and in disability rates - but many age-specific characteristics have not remained fixed and are not expected to remain constant in the future.”

The study also produced an alternative dependency measure based on disabilities, which reflects the relationship between those who need care and those who are capable of providing it, called the adult disability dependency ratio.

"If we apply new measures of aging that take into account increasing life spans and declining disability rates, then many populations are aging slower compared to what is predicted using conventional measures based purely on chronological age," co-author Dr Sergei Scherbov said.