Fighting Flab

In my last post, I underwent a scientific ramble upon the subject of fat, going into a little of the basic chemistry and biology of the whole business. However, what I did not touch so much on is the giant elephant in the room that surrounds all talk of fat in our modern world, and looks poised to become one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century- that of obesity and overweightness.

I am not, however, about to analyse obesity as a whole in this post, but instead intend to consider why attempting to counteract this, and the slimming industry in general, have become such major bones of contention for so many people. There’s no denying that the slimming industry is worth a veritable fortune- one analyst I saw on TV the other day estimated that a simple cure-all for the world’s obesity problem could be worth up to four trillion dollars, particularly given the boom in public obesity in countries like Brazil and China. However, this doesn’t mean that slimming is popular or that everyone goes in for it- if slimming down weren’t such a problem for so many people, there wouldn’t be an obesity problem worth speaking of, and it’s an open secret that around 99.9% people attempting a new diet fail to keep any weight off in the long term.

To begin, let us consult the very basics. For practical purposes in terms of losing weight, fat is basically energy stored by your body in physical form; the formation of the triglyceride molecules that make up fat requires energy, ‘using up’ any excess energy your body may have, and breaking them apart (the leftover ‘bits’ of the broken-down triglyceride molecules are effectively waste products that are transported to the kidneys via the bloodstream, and are later eliminated from the body in urine) releases this stored energy for your body to use, in order to keep your various bodily functions going and allowing you to move around and do things. Thus, any difference between the amount of energy your body consumes (in food, mainly; a ‘calorie’ is nothing more than an old unit of energy, just like the ‘joule’ unit used in modern science) and uses is offset by your fat reserves- if you put in more than you get out, your fat stores increases, and vice-versa. Thus, the only real challenge facing a slimmer wanting to shed their excess fat is to expend more energy than they consume (leaving to one side for this post various claims that certain foods make you fatter than equivalents of a similar calorific value). Just so we’re all clear on this.

The first concern to raise its ugly head when considering this problem is the simple question of ‘how much energy do we actually expend per day?’. Many people will look to the little table of government-issued Guideline Daily Amounts of various nutrients that you find on the side of most food packaging, but it must be remembered that these are only ‘Guidelines’ after all and a more personal evaluation may be of use. The amount of energy your body uses per day is known as your Metabolic Rate, and a good starting point for an aspiring slimmer would be to calculate your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). One’s RMR is a measure of how much energy a person of your gender, age, height and weight would normally (some people may have unusually fast or slow metabolisms, but these people are rare and ‘I have a slow metabolism’ is more often an exuse than reality) expend per day were they utterly at rest; not moving, not doing anything, this is the minimum amount of energy your body needs in order to function. RMR calculators such as this one are freely available online, and that one also features a separate calculator (under ‘Calorie Calculator) that allows you to (very roughly) estimate your total calorie consumption per day. The final number you get out of this latter process is a very useful guideline to the aspiring slimmer.

However, simply aiming to eat less than that number is no guarantee of long-term weight loss. For one thing, many people give up on diets because they can see no immediate results, but this is because ‘burning’ fat is an inherently slow progress. Depending on your source, fat stores between 7500 and 9000 calories per kilogram, meaning that if you are on a diet in which you eat 500 calories less than you expend (and I’m being generous here; a 500 calorie shortfall will leave you feeling very hungry), you can only expect to lose a kilogram of fat every 2-3 weeks. Even this may be  masked if our hypothetical slimmer decides to exercise a bit more too; regular exercise will cause a person to put on muscle (which weighs more than fat) and thus make the loss of weight seem less impressive- but we’ll come onto exercise in a minute.

The other major issue facing those who try to lose weight by dieting is the fact that diets are really, really unpleasant. For one thing, the constant calorie-counting provides unwanted mental strain for many (hence the popularity of points-based diets and similar that do the calculations for you), and this mental fatigue can serve to only exacerbate the gnawing hunger in our empty bellies at the end of a day when we’ve eaten enough calories but not enough to satisfy our stomach. Not only do dieters frequently feel hungry, they also have to deal with a bland diet of lettuce and cottage cheese- and however much we can pretend that we find these delicate things delicious, they don’t quite compare to the stomach-filling satisfaction of a thick, fatty, meaty burger.

The problem is that our hunger is not dictated by how many calories we have consumed, but by how physically full our stomach is, and whilst there are a few tricks that can be used to try and counteract this (a personal favourite is to down a pint of water when feeling peckish, just to give my stomach a large physical amount of stuff to process) none of them really compare to everyone’s dream of being able to eat as much as they like and still not get thin. So, if attempting to limit our intake of energy alone isn’t enough (although diet is most certainly a vital part of keeping our weight down), our only remaining option is to increase the amount of energy we expend, and that means exercise.

The benefits of exercise in relation to weight loss are generally poorly understood by most people; whilst the very act of getting our bodies moving does expend energy, as the little calorie meter on an exercise regime may show, the actual amount of excess energy expended by this process is usually very little; a half-hour run may only expend a cupcake’s worth of energy. No, the real benefits to exercise concern the metabolism; exercise and leading a generally active lifestyle causes your overall metabolic rate to rise, which is why relatively short but regular bouts of exercise (which constantly ‘top up’ one’s metabolic rate) are generally more productive than a four hour long weekend blowout that only boosts the metabolic rate for a small portion of one’s week. This is why the oft-quoted adage instructing people to do 10,000 steps per day has hung around for so long; I honestly believe that were everyone to follow this advice, there would not be a serious obesity problem. Not only that, but as mentioned before exercise, particularly intense exercise such as sprinting or weight training, will build muscle- muscle whose cells will need to be constantly provided with energy in order to stay alive, thus increasing one’s metabolic rate in the long- as well as short-term.

One final pitfall to be noted with attempting to lose weight in this fashion involves attempting to keep it off. It must be borne in mind that people of a lower weight have a lower RMR and thus need less energy, meaning that if a successful dieter reverts to their pre-diet practices they will be eating too much and will just balloon back to the weight they were. Thus, when one makes a commitment to exercise or better eating it has got to be a genuine change in lifestyle (something very few people are willing to commit to) in order to work for the long-term.

That’s one of two reasons why an unpleasant diet of celery sticks probably isn’t a great weight loss solution; the other reason concerns the other benefit of exercise. Someone who regularly exercises isn’t just likely to be slimmer than a similar person who doesn’t, but to be healthier as well- their heart will be healthier, their muscles more able to perform practical real-world tasks, and their body is generally less likely to suffer from the ravages of time and disease. A lot of the stated health problems that come from being overweight or obese are merely symptomatic of people who eat bad food and don’t exercise sufficiently, rather than being directly caused by being overweight. That’s why very few people worry after the cardiovascular health of Jonny Wilkinson, World Cup-winning rugby star and shining light of Toulon RC: a man whose BMI classes him as morbidly obese.

Poverty Changes

£14,000 is quite a large amount of money. Enough for 70,000 Freddos, a decade’s worth of holidays, two new Nissan Pixo’s, several thousand potatoes or a gold standard racing pigeon. However, if you’re trying to live off just that amount in modern Britain, it quickly seems quite a lot smaller. Half of that could easily disappear on rent, whilst the average British family will spend a further £4,000 on food (significantly greater than the European average, for one reason or another). Then we must factor in tax, work-related expenses, various repair bills, a TV license, utility & heating bills, petrol money and other transport expenses, and it quickly becomes apparent that trying to live on this amount will require some careful budgeting. Still, not to worry too much though; it’s certainly possible to keep the body and soul of a medium sized family together on £14k a year, if not absolutely comfortably, and in any case 70% of British families have an annual income in excess of this amount. It might not be a vast amount to live on, but it should be about enough.

However, there’s a reason I quoted £14,000 specifically in the figure above, because I recently saw another statistic saying that if one’s income is above 14 grand a year, you are one of the top 4% richest people on planet Earth. Or, to put it another way, if you were on that income, and were then to select somebody totally at random from our species, then 24 times out of 25 you would be richer than them.

Now, this slightly shocking fact, as well as being a timely reminder as to the prevalence of poverty amongst fellow members of our species, to me raises an interesting question; if £14,000 is only just about enough to let one’s life operate properly in modern Britain, how on earth does the vast majority of the world manage to survive at all on significantly less than this? More than 70% of the Chinese population (in 2008, admittedly; the rate of Chinese poverty is decreasing at a staggering rate thanks to its booming economy) live on less than $5 a day, and 35 years ago more than 80% were considered to be in absolute poverty. How does this work? How does most of the rest of the world physically survive?

The obvious starting point is the one stating that much of it barely does. Despite the last few decades of massive improvement in the living standards and poverty levels in the world in general,  the World Bank estimates that some 20% of the world’s populace is living below the absolute poverty line of surviving on less than $1.50 per person per day, or £365 a year (down from around 45% in the early 1980s- Bob Geldof’s message has packed a powerful punch). This is the generally accepted marker for being less than what a person can physically keep body and soul together on, and having such a huge proportion of people living below this marker tends to drag down the global average. Poverty is something that the last quarter of the century has seen a definitive effort on the part of humanity to reduce, but it’s still a truly vast issue across the globe.

However, the main contributing factor to me behind how a seemingly meagre amount of money in the first world would be considered bountiful wealth in the third is simply down to how economics works. We in the west are currently enjoying the fruits of two centuries of free-market capitalism, which has fundamentally changed the way our civilisation functions. When we as a race first came up with the concept of civilisation, of pooling and exchanging skills and resources for the betterment of the collective, this was largely confined to the local community, or at least to the small-scale. Farmers provided for those living in the surrounding twenty miles or so, as did brewers, hunters, and all other such ‘small businessmen’, as they would be called today. The concept of a country provided security from invasion and legal support on a larger scale, but that was about it; any international trade was generally conducted between kings and noblemen, and was very much small scale.

However, since the days of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution, business has got steadily bigger and bigger. It started out with international trade between the colonies, and the rich untapped resources the European imperial powers found there, moved on to the industrial scale manufacture of goods, and then the high-intensity sale of consumer products to the general population. Now we have vast multinational companies organising long, exhaustive chains of supply, manufacture and retail, and our society has become firmly rooted in this intense selling international economy. Without constantly selling vast quantities of stuff to one another, the western world as we know it simply would not exist.

This process causes many side effects, but one is of particular interest; everything becomes more expensive. To summarise very simply, the basic principle of capitalism involves workers putting in work and skill to increase the value of something; that something then gets sold, and the worker then gets some of the difference between cost of materials and cost of sale as a reward for their effort. For this to work, then one’s reward for putting in your effort must be enough to purchase the stuff needed to keep you alive; capitalism rests on the principle of our bodies being X% efficient at turning the food we eat into the energy we can use to work. If business is successful, then the workers of a company (here the term ‘workers’ covers everyone from factory floor to management) will gain money in the long term, enabling them to spend more money. This means that the market increases in size, and people can either sell more goods or start selling them for a higher price, so goods become worth more, so the people making those goods start getting more money, and so on.

The net result of this is that in an ‘expensive’ economy, everyone has a relatively high income and high expenditure, because all goods, taxes, land, utilities etc. cost quite a lot; but, for all practical purposes, this results in a remarkably similar situation to a ‘cheap’ economy, where the full force of western capitalism hasn’t quite taken hold yet- for, whilst the people residing there have less money, the stuff that is there costs less having not been through the corporation wringer. So, why would we find it tricky to live on less money than the top 4% of the world’s population? Blame the Industrial Revolution.

The Red Flower

Fire is, without a doubt, humanity’s oldest invention and its greatest friend; to many, the fundamental example what separates us from other animals. The abilities to keep warm through the coldest nights and harshest winters, to scare away predators by harnessing this strange force of nature, and to cook a joint of meat because screw it, it tastes better that way, are incredibly valuable ones, and they have seen us through many a tough moment. Over the centuries, fire in one form or another has been used for everything from being a weapon of war to furthering science, and very grateful we are for it too.

However, whilst the social history of fire is interesting, if I were to do a post on it then you dear readers would be faced with 1000 words of rather repetitive and somewhat boring myergh (technical term), so instead I thought I would take this opportunity to resort to my other old friend in these matters: science, as well as a few things learned from several years of very casual outdoorsmanship.

Fire is the natural product of any sufficiently exothermic reaction (ie one that gives out heat, rather than taking it in). These reactions can be of any type, but since fire can only form in air most of such reactions we are familiar with tend to be oxidation reactions; oxygen from the air bonding chemically with the substance in question (although there are exceptions;  a sample of potassium placed in water will float on the top and react with the water itself, become surrounded surrounded by a lilac flame sufficiently hot to melt it, and start fizzing violently and pushing itself around the container. A larger dose of potassium, or a more reactive alkali metal such as rubidium, will explode). The emission of heat causes a relatively gentle warming effect for the immediate area, but close to the site of the reaction itself a very large amount of heat is emitted in a small area. This excites the molecules of air close to the reaction and causes them to vibrate violently, emitting photons of electromagnetic radiation as they do so in the form of heat & light (among other things). These photons cause the air to glow brightly, creating the visible flame we can see; this large amount of thermal energy also ionises a lot of atoms and molecules in the area of the flame, meaning that a flame has a slight charge and is more conductive than the surrounding air. Because of this, flame probes are sometimes used to get rid of the excess charge in sensitive electromagnetic experiments, and flamethrowers can be made to fire lightning. Most often the glowing flame results in the characteristic reddy/orange colour of fire, but some reactions, such as the potassium one mentioned, cause them to emit radiation of other frequencies for a variety of reasons (chief among them the temperature of the flame and the spectral properties of the material in question), causing the flames to be of different colours, whilst a white-hot area of a fire is so hot that the molecules don’t care what frequency the photons they’re emitting are at so long as they can get rid of the things fast enough. Thus, light of all wavelengths gets emitted, and we see white light. The flickery nature of a flame is generally caused by the excited hot air moving about rapidly, until it gets far enough away from the source of heat to cool down and stop glowing; this process happens all the time with hundreds of packets of hot air, causing them to flicker back and forth.

However, we must remember that fires do not just give out heat, but must take some in too. This is to do with the way the chemical reaction to generate the heat in question works; the process requires the bonds between atoms to be broken, which uses up energy, before they can be reformed into a different pattern to release energy, and the energy needed to break the bonds and get the reaction going is known as the activation energy. Getting the molecules of the stuff you’re trying to react to the activation energy is the really hard part of lighting a fire, and different reactions (involving the burning of different stuff) have different activation energies, and thus different ‘ignition temperatures’ for the materials involved. Paper, for example, famously has an ignition temperature of 451 Fahrenheit (which means, incidentally, that you can cook with it if you’re sufficiently careful and not in a hurry to eat), whilst wood’s is only a little higher at around 300 degrees centigrade, both of which are less than that of a spark or flame. However, we must remember that neither fuel will ignite if it is wet, as water is not a fuel that can be burnt, meaning that it often takes a while to dry wood out sufficiently for it to catch, and that big, solid blocks of wood take quite a bit of energy to heat up.

From all of this information we can extrapolate the first rule that everybody learns about firelighting; that in order to catch a fire needs air, dry fuel and heat (the air provides the oxygen, the fuel the stuff it reacts with and the heat the activation energy). When one of these is lacking, one must make up for it by providing an excess of at least one of the other two, whilst remembering not to let the provision of the other ingredients suffer; it does no good, for example, to throw tons of fuel onto a new, small fire since it will snuff out its access to the air and put the fire out. Whilst fuel and air are usually relatively easy to come by when starting a fire, heat is always the tricky thing; matches are short lived, sparks even more so, and the fact that most of your fuel is likely to be damp makes the job even harder.

Provision of heat is also the main reason behind all of our classical methods of putting a fire out; covering it with cold water cuts it off from both heat and oxygen, and whilst blowing on a fire will provide it with more oxygen, it will also blow away the warm air close to the fire and replace it with cold, causing small flames like candles to be snuffed out (it is for this reason that a fire should be blown on very gently if you are trying to get it to catch and also why doing so will cause the flames, which are caused by hot air remember, to disappear but the embers to glow more brightly and burn with renewed vigour once you have stopped blowing).  Once a fire has sufficient heat, it is almost impossible to put out and blowing on it will only provide it with more oxygen and cause it to burn faster, as was ably demonstrated during the Great Fire of London. I myself have once, with a few friends, laid a fire that burned for 11 hours straight; many times it was reduced to a few humble embers, but it was so hot that all we had to do was throw another log on it and it would instantly begin to burn again. When the time came to put it out, it took half an hour for the embers to dim their glow.

3500 calories per pound

This looks set to be the concluding post in this particular little series on the subject of obesity and overweightness. So, to summarise where we’ve been so far- post 1: that there are a lot of slightly chubby people present in the western world leading to statistics supporting a massive obesity problem, and that even this mediocre degree of fatness can be seriously damaging to your health. Post 2: why we have spent recent history getting slightly chubby. And for today, post 3: how one can try to do your bit, especially following the Christmas excesses and the soon-broken promises of New Year, to lose some of that excess poundage.

It was Albert Einstein who first demonstrated that mass was nothing more than stored energy, and although the theory behind that precise idea doesn’t really correlate with biology the principle still stands; fat is your body’s way of storing energy. It’s also a vital body tissue, and is not a 100% bad and evil thing to ingest, but if you want to lose it then the aim should simply be one of ensuring that one’s energy output, in the form of exercise  exceeds one’s energy input, in the form of food. The body’s response to this is to use up some of its fat stores to replace this lost energy (although this process can take up to a week to run its full course; the body is a complicated thing), meaning that the amount of fat in/on your body will gradually decrease over time. Therefore, slimming down is a process that is best approached from two directions; restricting what’s going in, and increasing what’s going out (both at the same time is infinitely more effective than an either/or process). I’ll deal with what’s going in first.

The most important point to make about improving one’s diet, and when considering weight loss generally, is that there are no cheats. There are no wonder pills that will shed 20lb of body fat in a week, and no super-foods or nutritional supplements that will slim you down in a matter of months. Losing weight is always going to be a messy business that will take several months at a minimum (the title of this post refers to the calorie content of body fat, meaning that to lose one pound you must expend 3500 more calories than you ingest over a given period of time), and unfortunately prevention is better than cure; but moping won’t help anyone, so let’s just gather our resolve and move on.

There is currently a huge debate going on concerning the nation’s diet problems of amount versus content; whether people are eating too much, or just the wrong stuff. In most cases it’s probably going to be a mixture of the two, but I tend to favour the latter answer; and in any case, there’s not much I can say about the former beyond ‘eat less stuff’. I am not a good enough cook to offer any great advice on what foods you should or shouldn’t be avoiding, particularly since the consensus appears to change every fortnight, so instead I will concentrate on the one solid piece of advice that I can champion; cook your own stuff.

This is a piece of advice that many people find hard to cope with- as I said in my last post, our body doesn’t want to waste time cooking when it could be eating. When faced with the unknown product of one’s efforts in an hours time, and the surety of a ready meal or fast food within five minutes, the latter option and all the crap that goes in it starts to seem a lot more attractive. The trick is, therefore, to learn how to cook quickly- the best meals should either take less than 10-15 minutes of actual effort to prepare and make, or be able to be made in large amounts and last for a week or more. Or, even better, both. Skilled chefs achieve this by having their skills honed to a fine art and working at a furious rate, but then again they’re getting paid for it; for the layman, a better solution is to know the right dishes. I’m not going to include a full recipe list, but there are thousands online, and there is a skill to reading recipes; it can get easy to get lost between a long list of numbers and a complicated ordering system, but reading between the lines one can often identify which recipes mean ‘chop it all up and chuck in some water for half an hour’.

That’s a very brief touch on the issue, but now I want to move on and look at energy going out; exercise. I personally would recommend sport, particularly team sport, as the most reliably fun way to get fit and enjoy oneself on a weekend- rugby has always done me right. If you’re looking in the right place, age shouldn’t be an issue (I’ve seen a 50 year old play alongside a 19 year old student at a club rugby match near me), and neither should skill so long as you are willing to give it a decent go; but, sport’s not for everyone and can present injury issues so I’ll also look elsewhere.

The traditional form of fat-burning exercise is jogging, but that’s an idea to be taken with a large pinch of salt and caution. Regular joggers will lose weight it’s true, but jogging places an awful lot of stress on one’s joints (swimming, cycling and rowing are all good forms of ‘low-impact exercise’ that avoid this issue), and suffers the crowning flaw of being boring as hell. To me, anyway- it takes up a good chunk of time, during which one’s mind is so filled with the thump of footfalls and aching limbs that one is forced to endure the experience rather than enjoy it. I’ll put up with that for strength exercises, but not for weight loss when two far better techniques present themselves; intensity sessions and walking.

Intensity sessions is just a posh name for doing very, very tiring exercise for a short period of time; they’re great for burning fat & building fitness, but I’ll warn you now that they are not pleasant. As the name suggest, these involve very high-intensity exercise (as a general rule, you not be able to talk throughout high-intensity work) performed either continuously or next to continuously for relatively short periods of time- an 8 minute session a few times a week should be plenty. This exercise can take many forms; shuttle runs (sprinting back and forth as fast as possible between two marked points or lines), suicides (doing shuttle runs between one ‘base’ line and a number of different lines at different distances from the base, such that one’s runs change in length after each set) and tabata sets (picking an easily repeatable exercise, such as squats, performing them as fast as possible for 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, then another 20 seconds of exercise, and so on for 4-8 minute) are just three examples. Effective though these are, it’s difficult to find an area of empty space to perform them without getting awkward looks and the odd spot of abuse from passers-by or neighbours, so they may not be ideal for many people (tabata sets or other exercises such as press ups are an exception, and can generally be done in a bedroom; Mark Lauren’s excellent ‘You Are Your Own Gym’ is a great place to start for anyone interested in pursuing this route to lose weight & build muscle). This leaves us with one more option; walking.

To my mind, if everyone ate properly and walked 10,000 steps per day, the scare stats behind the media’s obesity fix would disappear within a matter of months. 10,000 steps may seem a lot, and for many holding office jobs it may seem impossible, but walking is a wonderful form of exercise since it allows you to lose oneself in thought or music, whichever takes your fancy. Even if you don’t have time for a separate walk, with a pedometer in hand (they are built into many modern iPods, and free pedometer apps are available for both iPhone and Android) and a target in mind (10k is the standard) then after a couple of weeks it’s not unusual to find yourself subtly changing the tiny aspects of your day (stairs instead of lift, that sort of thing) to try and hit your target; and the results will follow. As car ownership, an office economy and lack of free time have all grown in the last few decades, we as a nation do not walk as much as we used to. It’s high time that changed.

Drunken Science

In my last post, I talked about the societal impact of alcohol and its place in our everyday culture; today, however, my inner nerd has taken it upon himself to get stuck into the real meat of the question of alcohol, the chemistry and biology of it all, and how all the science fits together.

To a scientist, the word ‘alcohol’ does not refer to a specific substance at all, but rather to a family of chemical compounds containing an oxygen and hydrogen atom bonded to one another (known as an OH group) on the end of a chain of carbon atoms. Different members of the family (or ‘homologous series’, to give it its proper name) have different numbers of carbon atoms and have slightly different physical properties (such as melting point), and they also react chemically to form slightly different compounds. The stuff we drink is that with two carbon atoms in its chain, and is technically known as ethanol.

There are a few things about ethanol that make it special stuff to us humans, and all of them refer to chemical reactions and biological interactions. The first is the formation of it; there are many different types of sugar found in nature (fructose & sucrose are two common examples; the ‘-ose’ ending is what denotes them as sugars), but one of the most common is glucose, with six carbon atoms. This is the substance our body converts starch and other sugars into in order to use for energy or store as glycogen. As such, many biological systems are so primed to convert other sugars into glucose, and it just so happens that when glucose breaks down in the presence of the right enzymes, it forms carbon dioxide and an alcohol; ethanol, to be precise, in a process known as either glycolosis (to a scientist) or fermentation (to everyone else).

Yeast performs this process in order to respire (ie produce energy) anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen), so leading to the two most common cases where this reaction occurs. The first we know as brewing, in which an anaerobic atmosphere is deliberately produced to make alcohol; the other occurs when baking bread. The yeast we put in the bread causes the sugar (ie glucose) in it to produce carbon dioxide, which is what causes the bread to rise since it has been filled with gas, whilst the ethanol tends to boil off in the heat of the baking process. For industrial purposes, ethanol is made by hydrating (reacting with water) an oil by-product called ethene, but the product isn’t generally something you’d want to drink.

But anyway, back to the booze itself, and this time what happens upon its entry into the body. Exactly why alcohol acts as a depressant and intoxicant (if that’s a proper word) is down to a very complex interaction with various parts and receptors of the brain that I am not nearly intelligent enough to understand, let alone explain. However, what I can explain is what happens when the body gets round to breaking the alcohol down and getting rid of the stuff. This takes place in the liver, an amazing organ that performs hundreds of jobs within the body and contains a vast repetoir of enzymes. One of these is known as alcohol dehydrogenase, which has the task of oxidising the alcohol (not a simple task, and one impossible without enzymes) into something the body can get rid of. However, most ethanol we drink is what is known as a primary alcohol (meaning the OH group is on the end of the carbon chain), and this causes it to oxidise in two stages, only the first of which can be done using alcohol dehydrogenase. This process converts the alcohol into an aldehyde (with an oxygen chemically double-bonded to the carbon where the OH group was), which in the case of ethanol is called acetaldehyde (or ethanal). This molecule cannot be broken down straight away, and instead gets itself lodged in the body’s tissues in such a way (thanks to its shape) to produce mild toxins, activate our immune system and make us feel generally lousy. This is also known as having a hangover, and only ends when the body is able to complete the second stage of the oxidation process and convert the acetaldehyde into acetic acid, which the body can get rid of relatively easily. Acetic acid is commonly known as the active ingredient in vinegar, which is why alcoholics smell so bad and are often said to be ‘pickled’.

This process occurs in the same way when other alcohols enter the body, but ethanol is unique in how harmless (relatively speaking) its aldehyde is. Methanol, for example, can also be oxidised by alcohol dehydrogenase, but the aldehyde it produces (officially called methanal) is commonly known as formaldehyde; a highly toxic substance used in preservation work and as a disinfectant that will quickly poison the body. It is for this reason that methanol is present in the fuel commonly known as ‘meths’- ethanol actually produces more energy per gram and makes up 90% of the fuel by volume, but since it is cheaper than most alcoholic drinks the toxic methanol is put in to prevent it being drunk by severely desperate alcoholics. Not that it stops many of them; methanol poisoning is a leading cause of death among many homeless people.

Homeless people were also responsible for a major discovery in the field of alcohol research, concerning the causes of alcoholism. For many years it was thought that alcoholics were purely addicts mentally rather than biologically, and had just ‘let it get to them’, but some years ago a young student (I believe she was Canadian, but certainty of that fact and her name both escape me) was looking for some fresh cadavers for her PhD research. She went to the police and asked if she could use the bodies of the various dead homeless people who they found on their morning beats, and when she started dissecting them she noticed signs of a compound in them that was known to be linked to heroin addiction. She mentioned to a friend that all these people appeared to be on heroin, but her friend said that these people barely had enough to buy drink, let alone something as expensive as heroin. This young doctor-to-be realised she might be onto something here, and changed the focus of her research onto studying how alcohol was broken down by different bodies, and discovered something quite astonishing. Inside serious alcoholics, ethanol was being broken down into this substance previously only linked to heroin addiction, leading her to believe that for some unlucky people, the behaviour of their bodies made alcohol as addictive to them as heroin was to others. Whilst this research has by no means settled the issue, it did demonstrate two important facts; firstly, that whilst alcoholism certainly has some links to mental issues, it is also fundamentally biological and genetic by nature and cannot be solely put down as the fault of the victim’s brain. Secondly, it ‘sciencified’ (my apologies to grammar nazis everywhere for making that word up) a fact already known by many reformed drinkers; that when a former alcoholic stops drinking, they can never go back. Not even one drink. There can be no ‘just having one’, or drinking socially with friends, because if one more drink hits their body, deprived for so long, there’s a very good chance it could kill them.

Still, that’s not a reason to get totally down about alcohol, for two very good reasons. The first of these comes from some (admittely rather spurious) research suggesting that ‘addictive personalities’, including alcoholics, are far more likely to do well in life, have good jobs and overall succeed; alcoholics are, by nature, present at the top as well as the bottom of our society. The other concerns the one bit of science I haven’t tried to explain here- your body is remarkably good at dealing with alcohol, and we all know it can make us feel better, so if only for your mental health a little drink now and then isn’t an all bad thing after all. And anyway, it makes for some killer YouTube videos…

Why we made the bid in the first place

…and now we arrive at the slack time, that couple of weeks between the end of the Olympics and start of the Paralympics where everyone gets a chance to relax, wind down a little, and take time away from being as resolutely enthusiastic and patriotic as we have been required to for the last two weeks (or a lot longer if you factor in the Royal Wedding and Queen’s Jubilee). However, it’s also an undoubtedly good time to reflect on what have been, whatever your viewpoint, a very eventful last couple of weeks.

To my mind, and certainly to those of the Olympic organisers, these games have been a success. Whether you feel that it was all a colossal waste of money (although how anyone can think that of an event featuring the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter alongside James Bond is somewhat puzzling to me), or the single most amazing thing to grace the earth this side of its existence (in which case you could probably do with a nice lie down at the very least), its motto has been to ‘Inspire a Generation’. From a purely numerical perspective, it appears to have worked- sports clubs of all sorts up and down the land, even in niche areas such as handball, have been inundated with requests from enthusiastic youngsters after membership, and every other sentence among BBC pundits at the moment appears to include the phrase ‘the next Mo Farah/Usain Bolt/Ben Ainslie/Chris Hoy’ (delete as applicable).

However, I think that in this respect they are missing the point slightly, but to explain what I mean I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent. Trust me, it’ll make sense by the end.

So…, what is the point of sport? This has always been a tricky one to answer, the kind of question posed by the kind of awkward people who are likely to soon find an answer flying swiftly towards them in foot-shaped form. In fact, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to exactly why we watch sport, apart from that it is for some unexplained reason compelling to do so. But even if we stick to the act of participation, why do we bother?

Academics and non-sportspeople have always had a whole host of reasons why not, ever since the days that they were the skinny, speccy one last to be picked in the dreaded playground football lineup (I’ve been there- not fun). Humans are naturally lazy (an evolutionary side-effect of using our brains rather than brawn to get ahead), and the idea of running around a wet, muddy field expending a lot of precious energy for no immediately obvious reason is obviously unappealing. Then we consider that the gain of sport, the extent to which it contributes to making the world a better place is, in material terms at least, apparently quite small. Humankind’s sporting endeavours use up a lot of material for equipment, burn a lot of precious calories that could be used elsewhere around the world to help the starving, and often demand truly vast expenses in terms of facilities and, in the professional world, salaries. Even this economic consideration does not take into account the loss in income presented by the using up of acres upon acres of valuable land for sports facilities and pitches. Sport also increases the danger factor of our lives, with a heavy risk of injury ranging from minor knocks to severe, debilitating disabilities (such as spinal injury), all of which only adds to the strain on health services worldwide and further increases the ‘cost’ of sport to the world.

So why do we bother with it at all? Why is it that the question governments are asking themselves is “why aren’t enough kids playing sport?” rather than ‘why are so many of them doing so’? Simple reason is that, from every analytical perspective, the benefits of sport far outweigh the costs. 10% of the NHS’ entire budget is spent on dealing with diabetes, just one of a host of health problems associated with obesity, and if just half of these cases were to disappear thanks to a healthier lifestyle it would free up around an extra £5 billion- by 2035, diabetes could be costing the country around £17 billion unless something changes. Then there are the physical benefits of sport, the stuff it enables us to do. In the modern world being able to run a kilometre and a half in four minutes might seem like a pointless skill, but when you’re being chased down the street by a potential mugger (bad example I know, but it’ll do) then you’d definitely rather be a fit, athletic runner than slow, lumbering and overweight. Sport is also one of the largest commercial industries on earth, if not on a professional level then at least in terms of manufacture and sale of equipment and such, worth billions worldwide each year and providing many thousands or even millions of jobs (although some of the manufacturing does admittedly have a dubious human rights record). The health benefits of sport go far beyond the physical & economic too, as both the endorphins released during physical activity and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are known to increase happiness & general well-being, surely the ultimate goals of all our lives. But perhaps most valuable of all is the social side of sport. Whilst some sports (or, more specifically, some of the &%^$£*)@s involved) have a reputation for being exclusive and for demoralising hopeful youngsters, sport when done properly is a powerful force for social interaction & making friends, as well as being a great social equaliser. As old Etonian, heir his father’s baronet and Olympic 110m hurdles finalist Lawrence Clarke recently pointed out in an interview ‘On the track it doesn’t matter how rich your family is or where you’ve come from or where you went to school; all that matters is how fast you can get to the finish line’ (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist). Over the years, sport has allowed mixing between people of a myriad of different genders and nationalities, allowing messages of goodwill to spread between them and changing the world’s social and political landscape immeasurably. This Olympics was, for example, the first in which Palestinian and Saudi Arabian women competed, potentially paving the way for increased gender equality in these two countries.

Clearly, when we all get behind it, sport has the power to be an immense tool for good. But notice that nowhere in that argument was any mention made of being the physical best, being on top of the world, breaking world records because, try as one might, the value of such achievement is solely that of entertainment and the odd moment of inspiration. Valuable though those two things surely are, they cannot begin to compare with the incalculable benefits of a population, a country, a world united by sport for the good of us all. So, in many respects, the success of an Olympic games should not be judged by whether it inspires a new superstar, but rather by how it encourages the guy who turns up with him at that first training session, who might never be that good a competitor… but who carries on turning up anyway. The aim of top-flight sport should not be to inspire the best. It should simply be to inspire the average.

Fist Pumping

Anyone see the Wimbledon final yesterday? If not, you missed out- great game of tennis, really competitive for the first two sets, and Roger Federer showing just why he is the greatest player of all time towards the end. Tough for Andy Murray after a long, hard tournament, but he did himself proud and as they say: form is temporary, class is permanent. And Federer has some class.

However, the reason I bring this up is not to extol the virtues of a tennis match again (I think my post following Murray’s loss at the Australian Open was enough for that), but because of a feature that, whilst not tennis-specific, appears to be something like home turf for it- the fist pump.

It’s a universally-recognised (from my experience anyway) expression of victory- the clenched fist, raised a little with the bent elbow, used to celebrate each point won, each small victory. It’s an almost laughably recognisable pattern in a tennis match, for whilst the loser of a point will invariably let their hand go limp by their side, or alternatively vent his or her frustration, the winner will almost always change their grip on the racket, and raise one clenched fist in a quiet, individual expression of triumph- or go ape-shit mental in the case of set or match wins.

So then, where does this symbol come from? Why, across the world, is the raised, clenched fist used in arenas ranging from sport to propaganda to warfare as a symbol of victory, be they small or world-changing? What is it that lies behind the fist pump?

Let us first consider the act of a clenched fist itself. Try it now. Go on- clench your fist, hard, maintaining a strong grip. See the knuckles stand out, sense the muscles bulge, feel the forearm stiffen. Now, try to maintain that position. Keep up that strong grip for 30 seconds, a minute, maybe two. After a while, you should feel your grip begin to loosen, almost subconsciously. Try to keep it tight if you can, but soon your forearm will start to ache, grip fading and loosening. It’s OK, you can let go now, but you see the point- maintaining a strong grip is hard old work. Thus, showing a strong grip is symbolic of still having energy, strength to continue, a sign that you are not beaten yet and can still keep on going. This is further accompanied by having the fist in a raised, rather than slack, position, requiring that little bit more effort. Demonstrating this symbol to an opponent after any small victory is almost a way of rubbing their noses in it, a way of saying that whilst they have been humbled, the victor can still keep on going, and is not finished yet.

Then there is the symbolism of the fist as a weapon. Just about every weapon in human history, bar those in Wild Wild West and bad martial arts films, requires the hands to operate it, and our most basic ones (club, sword, mace, axe etc.) all require a strong grip around a handle to use effectively. The fist itself is also, of course, a weapon of sorts in its own right. Although martial artists have taken the concept a stage further, the very origins of human fighting and warfare comes from basic swinging at one another with fists- and it is always the closed fists, using knuckles as the driving weapon, that are symbolic of true hand-to-hand fighting, despite the fact that the most famous martial arts move, the ‘karate chop’ (or knife-hand strike to give it its true name) requires an open hand. Either way, the symbolism and connection between the fist and weaponry/fighting means that the raised fist is representative not only of defiance, of fighting back,  standing tall and being strong against all the other could throw against them (the form in which it was used in large amounts in old Soviet propaganda), but also of dominance, representing the victor’s power and control over their defeated foe, further adding to the whole ‘rubbing their noses in it’ symbolism.

And then there is the position of the fist. Whilst the fist can be and is held in a variety of positions ranging from the full overhead to the low down clench on an extended arm, it is invariably raised slightly when clenched in victory. The movement may only be of a few centimetres, but its significance should not be underestimated- at the very least it brings the arm into a bent position. A bent arm position is the starting point for all punches and strikes, as it is very hard to get any sort of power from a bent arm, so the bending of the arm on the fist clench is once again a connection to the idea of the fist as a weapon. This is reinforced by the upwards motion being towards the face and upper body, as this is the principle target, and certainly the principle direction of movement (groin strikes excepted) in traditional fist fighting. Finally, we have the full lift, fists clenched and raised above the head in the moment of triumph. Here the symbolism is purely positional- the fists raised, especially when compared to the bent neck and hunched shoulders of the defeated compatriot, makes the victor seem bigger and more imposing, looming over his opponent and becoming overbearing and ‘above’ them.

The actual ‘pumping’ action of the fist pump, rarer than the unaccompanied clench,  adds its own effect, although in this case it is less symbolism and more naked emotion on show- not only passion for the moment, but also raw aggression to let one’s opponent know that not only are you up for this, but you are well ready and prepared to front up and challenge them on every level. But this symbolism could be considered to be perhaps for the uncivilised and overemotional, whereas the subtlest, calmest men may content themselves with the tiniest grin and a quick clench, conjuring up centuries of basic symbolism in one tiny, almost insignificant, act of victory.