Sporty simulations

Long-term skiers are less forgetful, according to Martin Burtscher, spokesperson of the Research Centre Alpine Sports at the University of Innsbruck. Also, the doctor and sports scientist claims, the Austrian national sport is often less dangerous than assumed. He and his colleagues are researching the risks and health aspects of alpine sports. Not only that, he also works in state-of-the-art laboratories, refining sportswear and making skis and bobsleighs slide better.

The Austrian winter sports anthem talks about skiing, "Everyone is happy, everyone feels good." But is "the greatest thing you could ever imagine" also healthy?

Martin Burtscher: We conducted a study where we took a closer look at long-term skiers, their lifestyle, their history of injuries, the effect on risk factors and healthy ageing. It was interesting to see that people who have been skiing for 40 years not only have a relatively low risk of injury, but also have a healthier lifestyle throughout. On the whole, they exercise more, smoke less, drink less alcohol – which might surprise some people considering après-ski.

And the health status of long-term skiers?

Martin Burtscher: The more you ski – which means you are doing more exercise and are out in the fresh mountain air more – the more it influences cardiovascular risk factors. They have lower cholesterol values, lower blood pressure and even the prevalence for developing diabetes is lower. Interestingly, they are also less forgetful, which indicates that cognitive performance is obviously better and/or that age-related degenerative brain changes might be delayed. Whereby these are only indications, we don't have any conclusive evidence.

Is this specific to alpine sports or is it just because they are doing some exercise?

Martin Burtscher: Both. Alpine sports is characterised by several factors. The terrain is sloped, you're going up and down mountains. Going uphill has a different physical effect, this concentric effect is very taxing on the cardiovascular system and stimulates training significantly more than e.g. walking in the lowlands. This could also explain why life expectancy in Western Austria is higher thanin the east – epidemiological observations indicate this.

Is the mountain air an additional factor?

Martin Burtscher: We do not really know whether mountain air is significant or not. There have been studies that show that alti-

tudes of up to 2000 or 2500 metres have a favourable effect – life expectancy increases and cardiovascular illnesses in particular decrease with increasing altitude. The exact causes and their significance – the training effect from the sloped terrain, a healthier diet, positive social interactions, the mental effects of mountain landscapes, UV rays, etc. – are still not known. In any case, altitude per se probably plays a part in all of the accompanying factors. That also includes climatic stimuli such as the cold, the wind and occasionally heat that you have to adapt to.

People also associate alpine sports with fatal falls during climbing and hiking, life-threatening injuries from skiing, thousands of tobogganing accidents – are alpine sports more dangerous than "lowland sports"?

Martin Burtscher: That obviously depends on the sport, there are some significant differences between skiing, rock-climbing, ice climbing and mountain hiking. And then it also depends on who is doing these sports and how. There is also a difference whether you compare the risk of a fatal accident and/or emergency or the risk of injury. Just a few figures for you: there's one skiing fatality for every one million days of skiing – so statistically you have to ski quite a lot and for a very long time to be exposed to the risk of death. However, individual behaviour can dramatically influence this risk. Take for example the risk of injury in alpine skiing, there is one injury for every 1000 days of skiing.

The average skier spends ten to fifteen days skiing on the slopes.

Martin Burtscher: Yes, that means with ten days a year I would have to ski for 100 years to – according to statistics again - sustain an injury. In principle, there is a very low risk for an individual. But then if you take professional skiers who spend 200 days and more on skis, the risk may not necessarily be a lot higher but you have to expect one - serious - injury at least every five years.

You have recently looked more closely at the injury risk of ski tourers…

Martin Burtscher: … namely on pistes. We have been observing ski touring for many years now. The frequency of injuries is actually slightly lower compared to skiing on the pistes, you spend less time skiing downhill but the risk of death is greater due to avalanches and falls. We were also interested in what motivates skiers to practice this sport. It turns out that beginners and less experienced ski tourers enjoy using the piste, but also people

who have spent the whole day at work like to do so in the evenings. The hut as the final destination provides additional opportunities for social interaction. All in all, when carried out sensibly, regular exercise certainly contributes highly to staying healthy.

Do you have any comparisons of injuries in other sports?

Martin Burtscher: If you take the number of injuries with regard to how often the sport is practised, then - with sports where participation is higher - football has the highest risk of injury, followed by snowboarding and mountain biking. But these comparisons are misleading as we have varying kinds and degrees of injuries. The death risk is also different, it hardly exists in football – sudden cardiac arrests leading to death are rare here. But it does occur a lot more frequently in alpine sports. About 50 per cent of deaths in alpine sports and ski sports are caused by sudden cardiac arrests.

Deaths from cardiac arrests, which could also occur while doing other unaccustomed, strenuous activities.

Martin Burtscher: Yes, the number of deaths from cardiac arrests increases significantly every year from snow shovelling, caused by overexerting oneself. When it comes to alpine sports, mainly older men who have had a heart attack and/or have several risk factors such as high blood pressure, a high cholesterol level or diabetes are at risk. Regular exercise, however, is a significant protective factor.

Colleagues of yours have been working on a unique measuring system, a 30-metre long tribometer, for about three years. What are they researching?

Martin Burtscher: A tribometer is used to carry out friction measurements. Our work group is trying e.g. to show, which wax method is appropriate for which snow conditions, which wax conditions provide optimal sliding and speed at which temperatures and with which type of snow.

Measurement results, which are interesting for top-class sports. Can the findings be applied to mass sports, too?

Martin Burtscher: Although we are only at the beginning of our work, we have already been able to put the findings into practice. We first have to improve our knowledge of the methods we can use. It is a unique facility in Europe, if not in the world. Sliding on snow not only affects top-class sports, but also normale alpine skiing, cross-country skiing 

and ski touring – keyword skins – in general. The better the prerequisites, the more fun and safer the sport is. Concrete requirements are naturally also being voiced by businesses, from skiing, wax and skin companies etc. One study, for example, tests how long wax stays on skis under which conditions.

Future research at the Sport Institute in Innsbruck will focus – not only on the tribometer – on simulations. What is going to be simulated?

Martin Burtscher: In skiing e.g. injury mechanisms could be researched using simulations to show which forces occur in specific joint structures. Simulations obviously also have their limits. Another option could be standardised exposure to altitude and the cold. One example is acute mountain sickness. More and more people are going on e.g. trekking tours in higher areas, it is not that rare to get it there. The risk of death is about ten times higher than from skiing in the Alps. In our altitude chamber, we are trying to collect the physiological and pathophysiological reactions of various people to various levels of exposure to altitude. We simulate e.g. hypoxia, i.e. the lack of oxygen, at 4000, 5000 or 6000 metres above sea level. We want to use the results to show how individual people react to altitude and how people can best acclimatise themselves in order to avoid symptoms of acute mountain sickness or life-threatening altitude sicknesses.

Will you be sharing the results by cooperating with providers of e.g. trekking tours?

Martin Burtscher: We haven't had any direct contact with any individual companies or providers, but a lot of interest has been shown in it, especially by people who enjoy trekking and going on expeditions.

The institute is also working on – together with the Technology Centre for Ski and Alpine Sports as well as the Competence Centre for Textiles – sports textiles.

Martin Burtscher: Various companies showed their interest years ago in working together on the development of sportswear and sports equipment scientifically. Many companies already did this in-house, realised, however, that our competencies and laboratory equipment provided more options – from biomechanics through to sport physiology and sports medicine to psychology, which plays a large role especially with regard to clothing making the wearer feel good and being comfortable to wear. As a consequence, we

established this competence centre and the results benefit the companies as well as their customers. In general, the advancement in sports equipment and textiles has been huge. Functionality of sportswear has made a giant leap in the last few years. There are still weak points, of course, and development is still going on.

Whereby the outdoor sector has also gone back to old materials such as sheep's wool.

Martin Burtscher: Yes, especially in the textile industry. Our task as part of this cooperation is to show how different materials affect skin hydration, body temperature, general well-being and of course performance. Our research goes beyond sport, even including fire fighting clothing: we study how thermal stress caused by protective clothing can be reduced without changing the protective function so that fire fighters can perform to their best without running the risk of overheating.

Sports science used to be associated with top-class sport and sports teacher training for a long time, but not with textile research, altitude sickness or risk research.

Martin Burtscher: Top-class sport as well as teacher training still play an important role, mass sports and the health sector have, however, gained a strong foothold. And not only in Innsbruck, but rather in the entire world. Many university health and sports institutes need to focus on the health aspects of physical activity otherwise they will not be able to survive. This development is booming. But also because it has become very clear that regular physical activity is probably the most important evidence-based "medicine" for healthy ageing.

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