Photo by Ed Yourdon.
Every day it seems there's a new health study out. Something that used to be bad for you is good for you, or vice versa. It turns out most of these newsy findings are not really a big deal: Sometimes they only apply to mice, or they're a blip that doesn't change the overall scientific understanding of the topic. So let's take a look at some of this week's stories, and see what's big news and what isn't.
Parenting and Smartphones
The story: We've all seen that neglectful parent checking their phone at the playground instead of playing with their children. On the other hand, many of us have been that parent, and sometimes you just need a break from the screaming so you check Twitter. Is parents' smartphone use really harming kids? Seems like a good question to research.
The study involved asking parents how attached they felt to their phone, how often their phone interrupted interactions with their kid, and what kind of behaviour problems they had seen in their kid in the past two months. The parents were overwhelmingly white, educated and heterosexual.
The more interruptions mothers reported, the more behaviour problems their kids had. This wasn't the case for fathers, though. Is that because a mother-child relationship is more important? Or just because mothers spend more time with their kids, so they have more opportunities for interruption?
Everything here is self-reported, though: The researchers didn't count interruptions or evaluate the kids, they just gave the parents questionnaires. So maybe the parents of kids who act out are more likely to blame their tech use (especially while taking a survey like this) and answer in line with that theory. Or maybe families who are stressed out for other reasons are more likely to have misbehaving kids and parents who seek solace in their phones. The study really does nothing to tease out those very different scenarios.
The takeaway: Your smartphone use might be pissing off your kid, but you probably already knew that. This study doesn't give us enough evidence to say phones are bad for parenting. But if you feel like you're a slave to your notifications, turn them off when you're with your kids — like you probably already knew you should.
Caffeine for Exercise
The story: We already know that if you drink coffee all the time, a single cup of it won't wake you up. You've built up a tolerance. We also know that caffeine can help athletic performance, by helping you run faster or at least keep running longer.
It seems that you can build up a tolerance to some of caffeine's super powers, but not others. That isn't news, but there haven't been enough studies to fill out a complete picture of what you can expect from caffeine if you're a regular drinker. This new study gives a little more detail.
In the study, 40 healthy male athletes were asked to cycle as fast as they could until they burned 450 calories (1883kJ), which should take about 30 minutes. If they had a caffeine pill beforehand, they completed the test about three minutes faster. (The pill contained 400mg of caffeine, roughly the same as five cups of instant coffee.) And this was true whether they were normally heavy caffeine drinkers or not.
A big caveat: Since the experiment didn't include any non-athletes (or, for that matter, women), there's no guarantee that the findings apply to all of us.
The takeaway: Caffeine has lots of different effects on the body, but this study is a big hint that if you're using it to cycle (or run?) faster, you don't need to wean yourself off coffee before the race. Still, 400mg is a lot, so take this tip for a test drive before the big day.
Meditation and Stress
The story: Meditation is better known for helping us to relax and to maintain good mental health. Every good thing has a downside, though, so it makes sense that psychologists and sociologists want to know whether bad things can happen when you meditate.
In the study, researchers interviewed people who do a lot of Buddhist meditation, and who said they could talk about an experience that felt challenging or difficult. Those experiences included hallucinations, feelings of fear or anxiety, and pain.
But there isn't much to worry about for the average person. The people in the study weren't opening up a meditation app for 15 minutes here and there; they were serious, hardcore meditators. Half were meditation teachers. And many said that their bad experiences tended to come after meditating for 10 hours a day, for example at a retreat.
The takeaway: Your casual meditation habit is probably fine. If you enjoy it, this study doesn't give you any reason to stop. And if you do get super into Buddhist forms of meditation, and do them for many hours per day, talk to your teacher or to a mental health professional if you start to feel anxiety or have any other problems.