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Fat? There?s Good News & Bad

Heavier people are more likely to be killed or seriously injured in car accidents than lighter people, according to a study carried out in Seattle. That could mean car designers will have to build in new safety features to compensate for the extra hazards facing overweight passengers.

Car manufacturers have already redesigned air bags so they inflate to lower pressures, making them less of a danger to smaller women and children. But no one yet knows what is putting overweight passengers at extra risk.

The study looked at more than 26,000 people who were involved in car crashes and found that people weighing between 220 and 260 pounds are almost two-and-a-half times as likely to die in a crash as people weighing less than 130 pounds. The results were the same when the researchers looked at body mass index (BMI)?a measure that takes height as well as weight into account. It?s not just total weight, but obesity that?s dangerous.

Charles Mock, of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, who led the research, thinks one answer may be for safety authorities to use heavier crash-test dummies. Crash tests normally use dummies that represent standard-sized males weighing about 170 pounds. Recently, smaller crash-test dummies have been used to represent children. But larger and heavier dummies are not used, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The reasons for the higher injury and death rates are far from clear. Mock speculates that car interiors might not be suitably designed for heavy people. Or obese people, with health problems such as high blood pressure or diabetes, could find it harder to recover from injury.

Richard Kent, an expert in impact biomechanics at the University of Virginia, thinks people who are obese might be at risk because seat belts do not hold them as securely in a crash. He says, ?For example, a large amount of [fat] tissue between the restraint system and the bony thorax acts much like a winter coat: it introduces ?slack? into the restraint system and decreases its performance.?

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Women really do look fatter on television, while men look more muscular, say researchers at the University of Liverpool. It?s been said in the broadcasting industry that TV cameras make people look about 10 pounds heavier than they are. Female TV stars often diet to appear slim on TV, but end up looking thinner than average in real life. The media has been criticized for reinforcing eating disorder problems in women who want to look like their favorite TV star.

Bernard Harper and Richard Latto of Liverpool?s department of psychology analyzed 2D and 3D photographs of models that had been taken simultaneously, and asked students to say which image looked heavier. The vast majority judged the 3D images to be over five per cent slimmer than those in the 2D images.

In women, the waist-to-hip ratio was accentuated the most. But the necks of both sexes appeared thicker in the 2D images, says Harper. This effect in the photos of women made them look fatter, but gave the men a stronger, more muscular jawline. Harper says this is why male TV and film stars often seem so much smaller in real life.

Actors realize this. British TV anchor Lorraine Kelly says, ?Television makes you look a stone heavier. I have been dieting since I was sixteen.?

TV host Michael Parkinson says, ?On TV I ?chunk up? like John Wayne, but in real life I look more like Calista Flockhart.? Harper says the long-term solution is to use a broadband internet system to deliver 3D TV pictures that give more accurate visual cues.

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Instead of going to the gym, people someday may simply take a pill to get in shape, say researchers at Duke University and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. They have identified how muscle cells get stronger from regular exercise and found the chemical pathway that muscle cells use to build up their strength and endurance.

With this basic knowledge, it may be possible to develop a pill that pumps up muscle cells without exercise, says Dr. R. Sanders Williams, dean of the Duke University of School of Medicine. The main targets of the research are people with heart disease or other conditions that keep them from doing enough exercise to remain healthy. ?This could lead to drugs that will let people get the health benefits of regular exercise, even if they cannot exercise,? says Williams. But he worries that ?It is possible it could become a drug of abuse because it would enhance the performance of athletes.?

In the study, Williams and his colleagues created a group of mice with genes that over-expressed a signaling protein called calmodulin-dependent protein kinase, or CaMK. When this signaling protein is activated, it and another protein, calcineurin, trigger the physical changes that muscle cells undergo after intense exercise. Mice with a high level of CaMK expression developed more mitochondria in muscle cells and had an increase of a type of cell called the ?slow twitch? muscle. These are muscle cells that power sustained activity, such as marathon running. The researchers found that mice with high levels of CaMK developed the same healthy muscle cells as mice exercised. ?The effect increases more of the slow twitch muscles, but it also increases the number of mitochondia in the fast twitch muscle cells,? he says. ?That is very similar to what happens in very intense training.?

Mitochondria are structures inside the cell that provide energy by metabolizing oxygen and nutrition. Cells with many mitochondria can produce more work over a longer time. Physical training increases the number of mitochondria in muscle cells.

A drug that can trigger the CaMK muscle signaling pathway has not yet been found, but now that there is a specific target it should made development easier. Williams says, ?Pharmaceutical companies are very good at that.?

When you?re ready to stop exercising and start meditating, learn how with ?MindScience? by Charles Tart,click here.

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