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Short Wave on singing gibbons, tai chi's health benefits, and gender disparity with exercise results

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's time now for our regular science news roundup with our friends at NPR's Short Wave podcast, Regina Barber and Rachel Carlson. Hey to both of you.

RACHEL CARLSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: So how this usually works is you guys bring us three science stories that caught your attention this week. What are they?

CARLSON: The love songs of an endangered species of gibbon.

BARBER: How women might not have to work out as long as men to get the same benefits.

CARLSON: And a powerful tool to lower your blood pressure. Tai chi.

CHANG: OK, Rachel. I love, love, love these ideas. Let's start with the apes.

CARLSON: OK. So this story starts in Myanmar. Picture patches of green forests full of fruits like figs. And then, Ailsa, close your eyes.

CHANG: OK.

CARLSON: Imagine you're being serenaded by gibbons with bushy white eyebrows and brown or black beards.

CHANG: Hot.

CARLSON: Open your heart and your ears for some love songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIBBONS CALLING)

CARLSON: Good, right?

CHANG: Ooh, I am swooning. Why doesn't a man ever sing to me like this?

CARLSON: I know. I'm kind of jealous, which I feel like is sad, but, you know, we're getting over it. The singers of these very passionate duets just helped researchers figure out that Myanmar has the largest population of this endangered gibbon species on Earth. They're called Skywalker gibbons. And until recently, scientists thought there were fewer than 200 of them, all in southwestern China.

BARBER: And scientists suspected they might extend to Myanmar. But they didn't know for sure because there hadn't been a lot of research on gibbons in general.

CHANG: I mean, just too much singing, not enough research.

CARLSON: Yeah. Kind of. I talked to a gibbon researcher who wasn't involved in the study, Jackie Prime, from the nonprofit Prime Earth. And she says gibbons are the fastest tree-dwelling mammals in the world, so they can be kind of hard to track.

JACKIE PRIME: I like to refer to them as, like, stealth ninjas when they're moving through the forest. So they're tiny. They're very quiet.

CARLSON: Quiet except for these super-lovey duets, which all gibbons sing.

CHANG: So wait. How did researchers go from these super-lovey duets to discovering this new population of Skywalker gibbons?

CARLSON: Yeah, good question. So the team set up sound monitoring systems in a bunch of different forested areas in Myanmar to eavesdrop. And they heard them singing.

BARBER: And the researchers collected DNA samples using, like, chewed-up plants and fruits to confirm the duets they heard were actually Skywalkers and not some other closely related species. This is all detailed in a recent study in the International Journal of Primatology.

CHANG: And earlier, you said these guys, they're endangered, right? Is that still the case if there's - what? - more than scientists originally thought?

BARBER: Yeah. Sadly, they are still endangered because Skywalkers still face big threats like forest loss and hunting.

CARLSON: But the senior author on the paper, Tierra Smiley Evans, says now that they've developed relationships with local communities in Myanmar, she's hopeful that the research may encourage further collaboration and conservation efforts for all kinds of species in the country.

CHANG: OK, super-fascinating. Gina, for our next story, we have this scientific study that is telling me I do not have to work out as much as a man?

BARBER: Yeah.

CHANG: I just joined a gym last week.

CARLSON: No.

BARBER: Yeah. Well...

CHANG: Yes.

BARBER: ...I mean, you still should work out, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. All right.

BARBER: But a new study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that, yes, women don't have to work out as much as men to get the same health benefits. Yeah.

CHANG: This is, like, only thing where women don't have to work as hard to get the same thing as a guy does.

BARBER: Exactly. That's exactly what the researchers said. So they looked at specifically moderate-to-vigorous exercise, so, like, brisk walking or running and strength training.

CARLSON: So if a man exercised for 300 minutes, it had the same benefits as a woman who only worked out for 140 minutes.

CHANG: Wow. So only about half the time?

CARLSON: Yeah.

CHANG: No way. OK. But what are the specific health benefits that we're talking about here?

CARLSON: So mostly, we don't die, or we don't die as soon as people who didn't work out.

CHANG: Nice.

CARLSON: So these scientists studied health data on more than 400,000 U.S. adults, more than half of whom are female, who are part of this huge database called the National Health Interview Survey. It is over two decades of information on things like how much a person exercises.

BARBER: And then they cross-referenced this data with National Death Index records to see if these individuals were still alive. I spoke to a co-author of the study, Dr. Martha Gulati.

MARTHA GULATI: Ultimately, what we care about is who's more likely to be alive. It's the people that are more physically active. And, again, we - as women, we don't have to do as much as men for once.

CARLSON: For once, right?

CHANG: OK. But what about other healthy habits that women tend to have more often than men do? I'm just thinking, like, are there other explanations for the results of this study? Or what if people just lied about how much exercise they were getting.

BARBER: Right. So Martha did point out that there wasn't information about, like, other healthy habits like gardening or eating well, but they did still find that this protective effect of exercise happened across socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity.

CARLSON: And as for the lying, it is a known problem with questionnaires more widely. But funny enough, Martha says, people don't really lie about how much exercise they do, which I think is kind of weird.

CHANG: (Laughter).

GULATI: Many of my patients, they will straight-up tell me, I'm not going to lie to you, Doctor. I don't do anything.

BARBER: She also said people tend to be honest about their exercise in surveys, too. And in the end, Martha hopes that this new research might remind women that any exercise will help them live longer.

CHANG: OK. Well, speaking of exercise...

BARBER: Exactly.

CHANG: ...I love this last story we're about to get into. It's about tai chi and how tai chi could be better at reducing blood pressure than aerobic exercise. Who would have thought?

BARBER: Yeah. I mean, not me. But tai chi, for people who aren't familiar, is a traditional slow-moving form of Chinese martial arts.

CHANG: So slow.

BARBER: It is very, very slow. And it involves gentle movements, controlled breathing, mindfulness, and even better, it doesn't require a lot of space or equipment. And if you're lucky and you live in a big city, you might find some nice folks doing it in the park, and they might let you join in.

CHANG: I know. Like, I used to see these huge groups of old Chinese people in the park growing up, and I used to think, how is that even a workout? You are moving so glacially.

BARBER: I mean, we all thought that.

CARLSON: But, guys, the joke's fully on us. Scientists already know from earlier studies that practicing tai chi can help improve balance and walking speed in older adults, reduce anxiety and depression, protect against cognitive decline and even boost memory.

CHANG: It solves all our problems.

CARLSON: Truly.

CHANG: So why aren't we all doing tai chi, guys?

BARBER: I think I'm going to start soon. But, OK. So that's not all. Now we have this new study published in the journal JAMA Network Open that suggests tai chi is better at lowering blood pressure than more vigorous aerobic exercise, like jogging, cycling or brisk walking - some of the exercises we mentioned earlier.

CHANG: That is so impressive. It makes me want to stop running now.

CARLSON: Same. Our colleague Maria Godoy recently wrote about this new research, and one thing we should make clear is this study only looked at people with pre-hypertension, which is just blood pressure that's higher than normal but doesn't quite reach the level of high blood pressure. So it's considered a warning sign that heart disease might be ahead.

CHANG: But wait. What do scientists think is so special about tai chi that allows it to help lower blood pressure?

BARBER: Well, Maria talked to a researcher not involved in the study who pointed to tai chi's ability to elicit more of a response from the parasympathetic nervous system. Now, this is the network of nerves that relaxes your body after periods of stress or danger.

CARLSON: So tai chi is this mind-body exercise that has the ability to help a person relax and calm down, which I know we all need.

CHANG: Oh, yes.

BARBER: Yes.

CARLSON: And that works towards lowering blood pressure as long as you're doing it consistently.

CHANG: Consistently. As with everything in life, you got to stick to it. Well, that is Regina Barber and Rachel Carlson from NPR's science podcast Short Wave, where you can learn about new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines. Thanks to both of you.

CARLSON: Thanks, Ailsa.

BARBER: Thank you, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MORT GARSON'S "SWINGIN' SPATHIPHYLLUMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Carlson
Rachel Carlson (she/her) is a production assistant at Short Wave, NPR's science podcast. She gets to do a bit of everything: researching, sourcing, writing, fact-checking and cutting episodes.
Regina G. Barber
Regina G. Barber is Short Wave's Scientist in Residence. She contributes original reporting on STEM and guest hosts the show.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.