How many calories do you burn by laughing?

laughterI have been drawn to sketch comedy since my early teens. I religiously watched every episode of In Living Colour and Saturday Night Live (SNL) and subsequently tried to re-enact some of the scenes and characters with my friends. During high school, my friends and I would dream about being SNL writers when we grew up, spending many math classes giggling over some ridiculous sketch idea we came up with. As an adult, my obsession with Saturday Night Live has not waned. While I have tried (unsuccessfully) to get tickets to the live show for a number of years, the closest I’ve come to checking that item off my bucket list was during a tour of the SNL studio while on a recent NYC visit.

This summer, while traveling through Africa (and planning on reading literature more germane to where I was travelling), I got hooked on Live From New York, a highly detailed account of SNL’s long history. In that voluminous book (760 pages) I learned that many of my favourite comedians who at one time or another graced the SNL stage, including the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Amy Poehler, and Tina Fey, honed their art at The Second City comedy club. As soon as we were back in Toronto, I enrolled myself into the improv comedy program at Second City.

I have been taking 3-hour classes with 18 other brave souls every weekend for the past month and a half. And it has been an absolute blast. On many occasions, I come home after class with my jaw sore from laughing so much. But I’ve also come home quite hungry and exhausted, which got me thinking: how many calories do we burn when busting a gut over something hilarious?
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Exercise physiologist needed

The Department of Applied Human Sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island is looking for a CSEP Certified Personal Trainer or Certified Exercise Physiologist to coordinate labs in biomechanics and exercise physiology this winter (a BSc is required, an MSc is an asset).

Details here.

If you know anyone in Atlantic Canada (or who wants to move to Atlantic Canada) with those qualifications, please encourage them to apply.



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What day of the week do you weigh the most?

Weight FluctuationMonday. According to a recent study by Orsama and colleagues, that’s the day when most people experience their maximum body weight. And your lowest body weight? That’s most likely to be recorded on Friday.

The weekend certainly seems to play some havoc on our energy balance.

The 7 day week cycle has an impact on many of our behaviors. Take sleep, for example. During the week, we get up regularly at the sound of our alarm, but come Saturday, the alarm clock may be turned off and you allow yourself to sleep in. Your physical activity level is also likely to oscillate based on the day; individuals who actively commute to work may become more of a couch potato on the weekend. People may also be more likely to go out and have a few drinks over the weekend. All these behaviors can have an impact on a person’s energy balance, and subtly, on their body weight. And apparently, that’s exactly what happens.

In the study published earlier this year, Orsama and colleagues explored the weekly rhythm of weight to understand the normal variation of weight which occurs during the week. The researchers analysed daily self-reported body weight in 80 adults (BMI: 20.0–33.5 kg/m2; age: 25–62 years). To avoid intra-day variation in body weight individuals were instructed to record their daily weight immediately after waking up and before breakfast. The length of each individual’s time series of recorded weight varied from 15 to 330 days.
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Economists should focus on the economy, not public health

We get it.  Maclean’s Editor-at-Large Peter Shawn Taylor thinks that public health people (e.g. myself) should stay away from chronic disease (I guess it’s time to wrap up my research program and call it a career!).  And he thinks that we should definitely stay away from any policies related to chronic disease that have anything to do with personal choice or the economy.

Earlier this month I sounded off on a recent Maclean’s editorial arguing that public health should prioritize infectious diseases like Ebola, rather than chronic diseases like cancer or obesity.  This week, Mr Taylor repeated the same arguments in an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail concluding that:

It is not the job of public health to have an opinion on taxes, economic policy, free trade or corporate control. Neither should it be their business to interfere in the freely-made choices of adults.

Public health ought to stick to their needles, and leave the economy alone.

To recap: Mr Taylor (an economist and journalist) is well equipped to tell public health agencies how to run their business.  Those of us trained in health research are not (one presumes it is because we are not economists).  The level of condescension implicit in that line of reasoning is nothing short of astounding (if I ever meet Mr Taylor, I hope to ask him what he thinks of health economists… does their economic training qualify them to speak on important matters of public health, or are they disqualified by their training in public health?).
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Sedentary behaviour in the workplace

First of all, I’d like to wish a happy blog-versary to Peter; today marks 6 years of blogging at Obesity Panacea in its various forms (the traditional gifts are apparently candy and iron).  To be fair, I actually forgot (but he did not), and this is my public way of making amends.  Thanks also to the readers that have followed us over the years.

On a completely separate note, below is a video of a recent webinar on sedentary behaviour in the workplace, organized by the Physical Activity Resource Centre in Ontario. In the video, I discuss the health impacts of sedentary behaviour, as well as the reasons why sedentary behaviour is bad for health (my presentation begins around the 6 minute mark).  I put together some (in my opinion) pretty nifty power point animations outlining the mechanisms that link sitting with chronic disease risk.

Also presenting in the webinar was Jennifer Jenkins-Scott, a Health Promotion specialist from the Halton Region Health Department.  Jennifer discusses ways that organizations can help their employees reduce their sedentary time.



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Could smoking cigarettes make you a better runner?

(Image source)

A few years ago the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a fascinating article by Ken Myers discussing the (as-yet unexamined) benefits of cigarette smoking on endurance running performance.  Ken is a friend and elite distance runner (we used to literally run with the same crowd while I was doing my undergrad in Calgary) so I was very excited and a bit confused when I saw his article.  Could smoking really be beneficial for distance runners like myself?

Here are Ken’s arguments:

  1. Serum hemoglobin is related to endurance running performance.  Smoking is known to enhance serum hemoglobin levels and (added bonus), alcohol may further enhance this beneficial adaptation.
  2. Lung volume also correlates with running performance, and training increases lung volume.  Guess what else increases lung volume? Smoking.
  3. Running is a weight-bearing sport, and therefore lighter distance runners are typically faster runners.  Smoking is associated with reduced body weight, especially in individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (these folks require so much energy just to breath that they often lose weight).

In the discussion, Ken goes on to point out that:

Cigarette smoking has been shown to increase serum hemoglobin, increase total lung capacity and stimulate weight loss, factors that all contribute to enhanced performance in endurance sports. Despite this scientific evidence, the prevalence of smoking in elite athletes is actually many times lower than in the general population. The reasons for this are unclear; however, there has been little to no effort made on the part of national governing bodies to encourage smoking among athletes.

Now at this point I assume that people are wondering how something this insane came to be published in a respected medical journal (at the time the article was published, CMAJ was ranked 9th of out 40 medical journals, with an impact factor of 9).  The answer, of course, is that the point of Ken’s article was to illustrate how you can fashion a review article to support almost any crazy theory if you’re willing to cherry-pick the right data.  Here is the paper’s abstract:

The review paper is a staple of medical literature and, when well executed by an expert in the field, can provide a summary of literature that generates useful recommendations and new conceptualizations of a topic. However, if research results are selectively chosen, a review has the potential to create a convincing argument for a faulty hypothesis. Improper correlation or extrapolation of data can result in dangerously flawed conclusions. The following paper seeks to illustrate this point, using existing research to argue the hypothesis that cigarette smoking enhances endurance performance and should be incorporated into high-level training programs.

While people might be able to spot the implausibility of smoking improving distance running performance, it’s a lot harder to spot with more specialized topics.  For example, if I were to argue that “Intervention X” influences body fat distribution and pulled together a few mechanistic resources supporting my arguments, it would be very difficult for an educated lay-person to know if my arguments were sound or not.  Which unfortunately is the situation almost all of us are in, anytime we read anything that is even slightly outside of our own area of research.

Even with systematic reviews, which are the highest form of scientific evidence, there is still a lot of room for subjectivity. You can develop a systematic review in a way that makes it more or less likely that you will find a certain outcome, just as you could with an individual study. Not only that, but the review depends on the objectivity of the people screening articles, who could (intentionally or accidentally) systematically include or exclude articles that may have an impact on the review’s ultimate conclusions.  And then of course the authors have to synthesize data and come to conclusions, both of which are mostly subjective activities.

That doesn’t mean that there is always a nefarious intent on the part of researchers – I would argue that there almost never is.  But take the phenomenon of “White Hat Bias“, where researchers distort “information in the service of what may be perceived to be righteous ends”. And even the most objective and ethical researcher is still going to be looking at data through their own world-view, which may cause them to miss something that is in the data, or to “see” something that isn’t really there.

The point being that whether you’re reading a blog post or a systematic review paper in a prestigious medical journal, you really do need to be skeptical at all times.


ResearchBlogging.orgMyers, K. (2010). Cigarette smoking: an underused tool in high-performance endurance training Canadian Medical Association Journal, 182 (18) DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.100042


Today’s post was originally published in November of 2011.

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