Building a Better Jennifer
Building a Better Jennifer

Written by Jennifer Gardy

The things we do in the name of looking younger, getting thinner, shaping up, and getting sharper are remarkable – from expensive face creams to ridiculous diet regimes, from as-seen-on-TV exercise fads (Thighmaster, anyone?) to brain-training smartphone apps. But how many of these things actually offer a solution – one grounded in scientific reality – and how many are just too good to be true?

That’s what we set out to find in this second episode of Myth or Science, this time subtitled The Quest for Perfection. Our production team and researchers drafted a long list of potential stories, and we narrowed them down to ones that we thought our audience would be interested in and that we could realistically show the science (or lack thereof) behind in an interesting and clear way. When I saw the final list I was pretty excited– there were a few stories there I was personally really interested in (like high intensity interval training!) and there was nothing to do with being dunked in 15C water or fed to mosquitos like in our last episode.

Out of all the stories we looked at in this episode, two really stuck with me – the interval training piece with Marty Gibala, and willpower with Steven Bray. Both offer simple solutions to problems that virtually all of us deal with every day – how we do find the time to get a proper workout in and how do we resist that doughnut or cookie, or stick to a diet plan or exercise regime?

If anyone doubts the reality of documentary television, let me assure you that those experiments were 100% real! We visited McMaster, where both Dr. Bray and Dr. Gibala are based, early in our shoot. I did the baseline fitness testing with Marty on one day (and I VO2max-ed to my max and cycled every. last. one. of those 10km – it was a pretty sweaty day), and then the baseline willpower testing with Steven the next day. Both docs gave me my exercise prescription and off I went…

What did I actually do? For the high intensity interval training, I worked out every second day over a two and a half week period for a total of eight workouts. Each workout lasted 20 minutes – one minute of high intensity work, where I had to get my heart rate up to 80% of its max by the end of the minute, followed by one minute of low-intensity exercise or rest, repeated ten times over. At only 20 minutes each it was easy to find the time to sneak the workouts in, even with a busy shooting schedule, and I could do anything anywhere – sprints on the neighbourhood sidewalks, running uphill or climbing a big flight of stairs quickly, quick cycling on a stationary bike with the resistance dialed up – no gym needed.

For the willpower workout, I simply brushed my teeth with my non-dominant (left) hand twice a day, resisting the urge to switch the brush to my right hand. I gave a half-hearted attempt at left-hand hairbrushing too every morning, but had to follow up with the right hand to at least look half-presentable for whatever shoot we had scheduled for the day.

After the two and half weeks were up, we returned to Mac to meet with Drs. Gibala and Bray again. I repeated my testing under the same conditions that we used during the baseline, and was blinded to my results during the tests. When you see the big reveals on camera, those were actually me hearing my (dramatically) improved numbers for the first time! I had a feeling (knowing the science behind both stories) that I was going to see an improvement in fitness and willpower, given that I had been a good experimental subject and followed the protocols properly, but I had no idea at to the extent of improvement I’d see in such a short time. Marty was especially impressed – he was expected a fitness improvement more in the ~5% range given the short time frame, and I over doubled that!

We filmed our experiments many months ago and I’ve kept up with the interval training approach. Every second day I do a bit of interval training, and have lately been using the New York Times’ 7-Minute Workout – an interval circuit that I mistakenly thought would be a walk in the park, but found to be a formidable opponent. I’ve also noticed a boost in my willpower – I’ve been better able to say no to that extra sweet or that one last glass of wine, and the fitness and willpower together have me feeling happier and more comfortable in my body than ever before.

I hope this episode helps some of you to make simple, positive changes in your own diet, exercise, or brain training regimes – follow Fran’s example and get moving, learn from Anike and rock your natural strength, or take a cue from Myriam and put a little music in your life! And I hope we got you thinking about some of the claims we’re always being bombarded with – the next time you read a scintillating headline or hear about some miracle product or cure, perhaps you’ll be inspired to think about the research behind the claim and whether you’re dealing with myth… or science!

See you next time!

PS-Got ideas for our next Myth or Science episode? Comment below with your suggestions – we’re listening!