Steve Connor: Science Notebook

Fitness is just a matter of brainwork

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With the opening of the Olympics today in Beijing, many of us will be glued to our TV sets over the next couple of weeks watching people with perfect bodies perform feats of athletic perfection while our own waistlines pile on the couch-potato pounds.

The link between weight gain, diet and exercise is of course well established and boils down to the simplest of equations. If you burn more calories than you take in, you lose weight. If you take in more calories than you burn, you gain weight.

However, what is perhaps not so well known is that the brain uses something like 20 per cent of the body's total energy in-take. This begs the question of whether we can burn off the fat simply by stimulating our brains but, obviously, we cannot exercise our brains in the same way that we exercise our muscles.

Professor Colin Blakemore, the Oxford neuroscientist who specilises in vision, estimates that something like 4 per cent of our total energy in-take is burnt up by the brain's vision system which takes up about a third of brain function.

In effect, he is suggesting that watching something that is visually stimulating could become the new dieting. Perhaps that should make people feel better after spending hours in front of the box watching Team GB.

But to really get the benefit of this revolutionary approach to weight-watching, they should first think about what they are watching. Beach volleyball, for instance, must have greater weight-loss potential than the shot-put – as well as providing other, more obvious, visual stimulus.

All about stickability

Scientists at Nottingham Trent University have also been thinking about the link between athletics and the brain.

They wanted to find out if heat stress could affect the "cognitive ability" of athletes and recruited star hockey players Anne Panter and Becky Herbert to help out. Both women, in full kit and clutching their hockey sticks, were put on a gruelling treadmill in a chamber designed to mimic the temperatures and humidity expected in Beijing. Then they were asked to perform mentally-demanding tests.

The two women not only did just as well as they would have done under normal conditions, they actually did it faster. The conclusion was that athletes can call on previously unrecognised reserves of brain power to cope with the heat stress brought on by extreme exercise. Useful when you are calculating pi.

Pi in the sky no more

Talking of pi, a retired US astrophysicist has solved the mystery of the complex Wiltshire crop circle that appeared in June. He found that the 46-metre-diameter circle was encoded to represent the first 10 digits of pi – 3.141592654. I guess the truth is out there.

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