General Health & Fitness

  • Nitric oxide supplements

    Nitric oxide (NO) supplements are very popular in the sports and bodybuilding community. The NO molecule has been found to play an important role in many functions in the human body including mitochondrial respiration (and hence energy metabolism), blood flow, vasodilation and implicated in my own research, neuronal functions and developments. Nitric oxide is synthesized via two physiological pathways, I won't bore you with the details, all you need to know here is that L-arginine acts as a main precursor of the first pathway whereas nitrate is the substrate used to produce NO by the second pathway. It was hypothesized that NO supplementation can enhance oxygen and nutrient delivery to active muscles and hence improve performance. Truth or myth, let's find out.

    L-arginine works on the first NO pathway and it has been proposed that taking L-arginine can increase NO levels and subsequently exercise performance. However, oral L-arginine supplementation has been found to unable to elevate NO levels in the test subjects and did not improve strength performance (Alveare et al 2012, Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism). Other studies further suggested that the supplementation of L-arginine had no effects on the hormone and NO levels in the body and had no effect on performance (da Silva et al 2014, Food and Nutrition Research; Zajac et al 2010, Journal of Strength and Conditioning). There are some contradicting reports showing L-arginine has a somewhat measurable effect on hormone levels and exercise performance. However, the general consensus of the scientific community is that there is a lack of concrete evidence to support the claim that oral L-arginine supplementation has a positive effect on NO levels in the body and exercise performance.

    Nitrate is converted into nitrite after ingestion and can be converted into nitric oxide when the body's oxygen availability is low. The supplementation of nitrate has been shown to lower oxygen demand during submaximal workout, and improves exercise efficiency (Larson et al 2007, Acta Physiologica). It was suggested by one study that nitrate should be consumed 2-3 hours prior to competition or training for maximum benefits (Jones et al 2012, Medicine and Sports Science).

    One of the common flaws of the studies involving NO supplements and exercise performance is that only young males were used as subjects. To my knowledge, the effects of NO supplements on exercise performance in older males or women have not been yet been explored as of today. The effect of oral L-arginine supplementation is debated and the outcome is not conclusive. The use of nitrate supplements has shown to improve exercise performance in some and may be used for their ergogenic potentials.

  • Exercise addiction

    We promote regular physical exercise because it is beneficial physically and psychologically. However, too much of anything is bad and excessive exercise can also have adverse physical and psychological effects. Exercise dependence, also known as exercise addiction, is a behavioural addiction, it is characterised by an excessive preoccupation with exercise. The prevalence of exercise addiction ranging from around 3% to over 40% of the population depends on the demographic of people tested. For instance, the prevalence of exercise addiction of people in a sports club is higher compared to that of in the entire population. Currently, there're still no universally recognised, distinct criteria separating exercise addiction to healthy habits or compulsory disorders. Researchers and medical professionals nevertheless constructed general guidelines to identify exercise addiction. Below is one of the more recognised ones as reviewed by Freimuth et al 2011 (International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health).

    • Tolerance: increase the amount of exercise in order to feel the buzz and accomplishment;
    • Withdrawal: feeling anxious, irritable and sleepless in the absence of exercise;
    • Lack of control: unable to reduce the level or amount of exercise for a period of time;
    • Intention effects: exceeding the amount of time devoted to exercise beyond originally intended on a consistent basis;
    • Time: a great deal of time is spend on preparing, engaging in, and recovering from exercise;
    • Reduction in other activities: reduced or non-existent social, occupational and/or recreational activities as a direct result of exercise;
    • Continuance: continue to exercise despite knowing that it is exacerbating or creating physical, psychological and sociological problems.

    Remember, the purpose of this article is to raise awareness, it is not meant for self-diagnosis. See a health care professional if you feel that you might be addictive to exercise and it's affecting you negatively.

  • Best time to exercise

    There is really no best time to exercise. It depends largely on the individual and what do you want to achieve through exercise. I believe you should exercise whenever you can, it really doesn't matter what time you do it, as long as you do it. Unless of course you are an elite athlete who wants to achieve that extra 0.5% gain in your performance during training. Even that I don't think it really matters, as professional competition schedules are generally not based on peak performance timing but rather on broadcasting viewership and organisational convenience. There is also no concrete scientific evidence to suggest that calories are burnt more efficiently at certain times of the day. However, for those who want to exploit the subtle differences between different exercise timings in the hope of maximising benefits, please read on.

    Morning exercise:

    Pros

    • Can improve sleep at night and hence promote weight loss (see my article about weight loss and sleep).
    • Morning exercise promotes consistency. People are more likely to keep up with the exercise schedule. If you have trouble with consistency, exercise in the morning.
    • Fat burning if exercising on an empty stomach.
    • Can boost energy and mental alertness for the rest of the day hence creating better mood and moral compares to that of people exercise in late afternoon.

    Cons

    • More prone to injuries due to slow metabolism and cold muscles. Need to stretch properly before strenuous exercise.
    • A lack of energy hence a reduction in performance/endurance if exercised on an empty stomach.

    Noon/early afternoon exercise

    Pros

    • Body is warmer than in the morning, body temperature is better regulated in the afternoon.
    • Better energy and endurance compares to morning.
    • Increased blood flow to the brain, which could be beneficial to afternoon duties.

    Cons

    • Unlikely to have enough time to exercise and eat.

    Late afternoon and evening exercise

    Pros

    • Highest body temperature (metabolism) at around 6pm.
    • Less likely to have injuries compares to doing exercise in the morning.
    • Highest muscular strength of the day.
    • Highest anaerobic and aerobic performance levels.

    Cons

    • Late night exercise may affect sleep as metabolism is stimulated during a time the body is trying to slow it down.

    While subtle differences have been detected between different timings of exercise in controlled scientific studies, the effects of these differences may not be measurable in the real world. The above pros and cons listed correlate with an average person's circadian rhythm. Everyone's different. Therefore, the best time for a workout should be the time that allows you to exercise regularly in accordance with your schedules and makes you feel the best.

  • It Takes More Than Muscle to Lift Heavy

    Neural adaptations can be responsible for different strength gains, despite similar muscle mass from person to person. Building muscle can be different from case to case. Now, there is scientific data to support this theory. Brain cells can be responsible for this as there could be more electrical signals sent to the muscle with higher repetitions and lower weight compared to lower repetitions with higher weight.

    Neural adaptations study and findings

    A 2017 study[i] made by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln build on empirical data and showed how neural adaptations can be responsible for different strength gains. These gains can be similar, regardless of the weights, but with different repetitions.

    Researchers took 26 men and chose leg extensions as the base exercise for the study. Two groups were formed. The first group used a load of 80% of the maximum weight they could lift. The second group used 30% of their maximum handled weight. While the first group did fewer repetitions, the second group performed the exercises with higher repetitions, due to the lower weights. After three workouts each week for a total of six weeks, researchers concluded that the heavy-load group improved voluntary activation by 0.15% while the light-load group improved voluntary activation by 2.35 percent. So what caused these results?

    In simple terms, muscles are activated by the brain through electrical signals. These signals are triggered by the neuron motor cortex. This then leads to muscle excitation which is responsible for contractions. These signals could be activated to a larger degree for those performing a higher number of repetitions. It is why the study found better strength gains for this group. Researchers concluded that training with higher frequency repetitions leads to better strength adaptations. This is constant for amateurs, average lifters or athletes.

    Of course, the research has vast interpretations and it could be a great base for further investigation. One of the areas which are critical to assess comes with fatigue. Researchers believe that simply lifting lower weights every day is more practical on the long-term. This is due to possible delayed muscle fatigue.

    The study can also be the ground for new research when it comes to joint impact and the training of the elderly. But even if the results are similar with different loads, the researchers do not exclude the possibility of training with heavy loads based on a low number of repetitions. For those who have busy lifestyles, this method of training remains a good option. People with busy lifestyles can also consume an amino acid supplement, as 9 out of 20 amino acids cannot be produced by the human body and they need to come from foods.

    Neural adaptations are responsible for strength development in both low and high-intensity training and it goes to show that muscles are largely impacted by the brain and its electric signals. The research can be applied in different ways. For some people, it means that higher frequency with low weights can mean building muscle with reduced fatigue. But the traditional heavy loads with fewer repetitions should not be excluded. It is yet to be seen how these two types of training methods can be combined for more complex workouts.

    [i] N.M.D. Jenkins, A. Miramonti, E.C. Hill et al. (2017), Greater Neural Adaptations following High- vs. Low-Load Resistance Training, Frontiers of Physiology Journal.  Available at:

    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2017.00331/full

  • Creatine use, safe or not?

    Many of my articles intended to debunk common myths surrounding the perceived effectiveness of certain supplements in the world of fitness. On the other hand, although sometimes the effects can be inconsistent, creatine generally works, there's no question about that and with the currently available scientific data to back this up, I am in no position to criticize its efficacy. However, the increase in strength and energy comes at a cost, kidney damage, liver problems, muscle camping, diarrhea, impaired thermoregulation and death just for starters. Or is it really?

    The well-publicized side effects of creatine are generally hypothesised theories based on how the supplement works inside the body under extreme doses. Creatine is an organic acid that is synthesized by the kidney, pancreas and liver to help to supply energy to the body by increasing the formation of ATP. Theoretically, creatine uptake in muscle can result in an increase in fluid retention hence may affect the body's fluid balance and ability to dissipate heat. On the other hand, the body needs to get rid of and compensate for the extra creatine consumed, which puts extra strain on the kidneys and liver. The association between creatine use and liver and kidney damage was thus made based on a few case reports and small changes in organ function indicators.

    The theorized side effects have their scientific merits. However, if used properly, hardly any of the proposed side effects of creatine have been confirmed in well-controlled, randomized studies conducted on healthy subjects. Of course, you should not use creatine if you have an underlining health condition, especially kidney or liver problems, and you should not overdose, which may result in unwanted side effects. But if you are perfectly healthy, not allergic to any of the contents in the supplement that you ingest, and follow the proper guideline of oral creatine supplementation, it is very safe.

    How much creatine should I use then? One should always strive to achieve the best results with the lowest dose possible. According to the Mayo Clinic, a typical loading dose could be anywhere around 9-25 grams daily (depends on body weight) with good fluid intake for 4-7 days and a typical maintenance dose would be 2-20 grams daily for 5 days up to 12 weeks depends on body weight. This is just a general guideline and you should always tailor your regime based on your own circumstances. But remember, the effect of creatine can be inconsistent between different people and if you feel that the creatine you are taking does not give the expected result, it may not be the problem of dosage but the efficacy of the supplement itself.

    All in all creatine is safe supplement to use when taken properly.

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