What Science Says About Supposed “Body Hacks”

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We hate to say it, but at this point in our lives, we’re starting to accept the fact that we’ll never become superheroes. We’re stuck with boring human bodies without adamantium claws, laser eyes, or any of the other awesome anatomical features we’ve been praying for since we were six (we’re 30 now, by the way—not that that matters).

The good news is that, thanks to the internet, we’ve learned about dozens of “life hacks,” purportedly backed by science, that will let us unlock the secrets of our (horrible, boring) bodies. The bad news is that some of those hacks are, well, slightly misleading.

We decided to take a closer look at some of the stranger examples floating around the internet. Some of them are pretty awesome body hacks—others are more like “writing hacks.”

1. Looking at the color green can make you more creative.

Need to sit down and write an essay? Looking for inspiration for your latest play? Are you a professional wrestler and you’re running out of fresh ideas for your armbar? Just look at a big green rectangle, and you’ll somehow trick your brain into jump-starting its creativity circuits.

This hack actually has some basis in science. A 2012 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that the color green can aid creative tasks, although the authors were careful to note that the effect was limited. Researchers provided study participants with a “brief glimpse of green,” then asked them to perform various “creativity challenges.”

Bright green patch of astroturf
Jason Dent on Unsplash

For instance, in one experiment, participants were asked to come up with various uses for a tin can, at which point their responses were graded by a tester. Participants who saw a green rectangle performed more creatively than those who saw a white rectangle.

“Green may serve as a cue that evokes the motivation to strive for improvement and task mastery, which in turn may facilitate growth,” researcher Stephanie Lichtenfeld, PhD, said in a 2012 interview.

However, Lichtenfeld also characterized the effect as subtle. If you’re really looking to boost your creativity, you’re better off building a creative routine, according to the American Psychological Association. You’ll also want to minimize stress, get plenty of sleep, and collaborate with others—if you want to do so in an all-green room, all the better.

2. Rubbing “pressure points” on your body can prevent migraines.

This hack comes from a piece on Livestrong, which references some…unscientific sources. It’s based on pressure point therapy, a somewhat dubious interpretation of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and an ebook that apparently came from an online health food store (not exactly the New England Journal of Medicine).

Activating those “pressure points” can actually reduce the symptoms of a migraine, and some researchers recommend massage and acupuncture (another pressure-therapy) as a first-line course of treatment for migraine sufferers.

However, there are some crucial caveats. For starters, we’re not really sure if pressure point therapy really needs the, uh, pressure points. One study notes that the positive effects “can be achieved even if point selection is not as dogmatic and precise as proposed by the Chinese system.” Rather than trying to find the one inch of your body that holds all of your Chi, you might be able to just rub for a while and get the same results.

And since the placebo effect is more pronounced in people suffering from migraine pain, it’s also possible that pressure-point therapies provide a sort of enhanced placebo effect. One study found that trigger-point massage, while effective at limiting migraine pain, was no more effective than a placebo.

If you suffer from migraines, you’re better off increasing your intake of folic acid, getting regular exercise, and seeing a physician if the headaches are occurring regularly. Don’t expect to cure severe headaches simply by rubbing the webbing between your fingers—but with that said, if you feel like rubbing your finger-webs, go for it. You’re not doing any damage.

3. Bend over in a chair to get rid of the hiccups.

We know, we know—everyone’s got a hiccup cure. We’ve seen cures that include rubbing parts of your hand, covering your mouth, and chugging pickle juice.

Those cures might be effective for some people. If you want a really powerful hiccup cure, however, you’ve got to turn to a neuroscientist.

“For non-pathological hiccups, there’s a really easy way to cure them for 99 percent of the population,” James Giordano, PhD, professor in neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, tells Urbo. “You want to sit down and bend forward at the waist, and I mean really bend forward… Then, drink a room-temperature, non-carbonated fluid for 10 seconds straight, or 8-10 swallows of fluid. Stay in that position until you’re finished, then slowly sit up.”

Why does that work? Hiccups are caused by excessive stimulation to the upper part of your digestive tract, including the soft palate, the top of the throat, and the top of the stomach. Giordano explains that his method overwhelms the spasm, allowing your muscles to relax.

“It’s sort of a neurological override,” he says. “The swallowing reflex requires coordination of a number of different nerves, and you’re literally overcoming the spasm by super-coordinating a pattern response.”

Of course, excessive hiccuping can be a symptom of a more serious condition, so if your hiccups don’t disappear in a few hours, you might want to see your physician.

4. Tweak your walking technique to burn more calories.

Walking has to be the best exercise of them all—if you can count walking as an exercise, that is. Running is hard on the knees. Lifting weights is just plain hard. But walking? Heck, we do that every day.

Good news: Fitness motivation site Super Skinny Me says you can burn plenty of calories during a nice, relaxing walk, provided you know how to walk the right way. But the site only cites itself; all of its links are internal. So is this welcome exercise tip too good to be true?

At first glance, Super Skinny Me’s prescription for strolling passes the common-sense test. They say you should boost your walking speed until your heart-rate monitor tells you your heartbeat is up to 65 to 85 percent of your maximum beats per minute. They recommend pumping your arms, weighing yourself down, and taking a hilly route. All of those things require more exertion, so it makes sense that they’d burn more calories.

But what do the doctors have to say about walking as exercise?

It’s a go, particularly for folks who aren’t used to being active, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Walking can help you burn calories and lower your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. But Super Skinny Me definitely got one thing right: In order to get the most benefits, you’ll need to keep your pace pretty brisk.

The NIDDK recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Walk fast enough to increase your heart rate, and you’re there. So while you don’t have to learn new walking techniques to burn calories, you do have to move faster than a shuffle. Try walking quickly for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. If that doesn’t help you meet your weight-loss goals, double your walking time to an hour per day, according to the NIDDK’s recommendations.

5. Banish the call of nature by scratching your leg.

Back in 2006, Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald published a bizarre little story with the headline “Leg scratch ‘controls’ women’s loo call.” The story popularized advice from a physiotherapist named Janetta Webb, who said that women can ease the pressure of a full bladder by giving the back of the leg a hearty scratch.

Since then, this body hack has been picked up by a number of sites, including Lifehacker. There’s just one problem, and it’s the obvious one: Even Webb herself says that the trick doesn’t work long enough to do much good.

“If you scratch or rub the back of your calf for a few moments, really vigorously, you may interrupt the message from your bladder to your brain just long enough for you to make it to the toilet,” the paper quotes Webb as saying (our emphasis).

Person standing with jeans on, and bright white shoes
Haley Phelps on Unsplash

Webb told the reporter that the only real way to stop the leaks is to strengthen the pelvic floor through special exercises. Add that to the fact that, when she was interviewed for the article, Webb was working on a program to boost consciousness about continence problems and their cures. Could she have come up with the theory in an early bid for viral attention?

We don’t know, but we wouldn’t recommend holding it in if you’ve got the option. That can stress your bladder muscles, leading to urinary retention (in other words, you’re not fully able to, uh, empty). That’s a potentially serious medical condition. Your best bet is to hit the head when you need to go—and save the leg scratching for when your leg itches.

If there’s a lesson in all of this, it’s that some life hacks are sheer hackery. If you can call any beneficial behavior a life hack, which it seems you can, here’s our favorite: Do your research.

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