Fidgeting and Weight Loss

Will fidgeting create a leaner body?

Well, that’s what local and national media recently reported, but what’s most important is just getting off your bottom, recent research has found.

Fidgeting and weight loss

Scientists recruited 20 self-described “couch potatoes,” 10 of whom were mildly obese and 10 of whom were lean, and discovered that the lean ones, though they loved lazing about on the sofa, did in fact move a lot more throughout the day – standing, pacing, wriggling, fidgeting, walking, cleaning, shifting from one foot to the other, etc. On average, they sat two hours less every day than their chubby counterparts.*

Those extra two hours of activity, concluded lead investigator Dr. James A. Levine of Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, made all the difference in whether his subjects stayed lean or got fat. He and colleagues calculated that if obese participants were as active as lean participants, they would burn an extra 350 calories per day, “which would translate into at least 30 pounds lost over the course of a year,” notes Kimberly Gomer, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center.

This new study echoes earlier studies, from 1999, that found that “lifestyle” exercisers, those who fit in several 5- to 10-minute bouts of walking into their everyday lives, lost just as much weight at the end of two years as “traditional” exercisers – those who met at the health club for 20 to 60 minutes of structured exercise most days of the week.**

The Mayo Clinic study, published in the January 2005 issue of Science, was extraordinarily well designed. To track the body movements, each of the 20 participants wore special high-tech underwear rigged with sensors originally designed to track the motion of jet fighters. (Fresh underwear was supplied daily.) About 150 million lines of data were collected.  Participants also ate all their meals, all calorie-controlled by scientists and nutritionists, at a Rochester hospital.

To investigate the possibility that the overweight group moved less simply because their extra weight made it harder for them to get up and get going, the scientists put them on a weight-reducing diet. Yes, they lost weight, but they still moved around less. The researchers also overfed the lean group, and even though they fattened up, they remained just as fidgety as before.

Some of us, concluded Dr. Levine, may be “biologically determined” to be pacers and wrigglers, but even if you aren’t, he encourages, there’s much you can do. “It must be possible for obese people to get that extra two hours [of movement] because lean people have it in the same environment.”

The key, he suggests, is getting creative – seeking out “movement opportunities.” Dr. Levine himself has a treadmill in his office, and he set up a computer right above the machine so that he can walk (very slowly, just 0.7 mph) while typing. He used to sit 10 hours a day. Now he walks 10 hours daily.

Below are 10 ways to squeeze in a few extra minutes of activity every hour. If you would enjoy watching your steps tally up throughout the day, use a pedometer. Your goal: 10,000 or more steps daily.

  1. Park at the far end of the parking lot and walk those few extra steps to your destination.
  2. For one or more flights, take the stairs rather than the elevator.
  3. At the office, walk over and talk to co-workers rather than telephoning or shooting off an email.
  4. Keep walking shoes under your desk. Instead of a coffee break, slip out for a 10-minute stroll.
  5. For lunch, pick restaurants near the office and walk to them.
  6. Make good use of your phone. Walk while talking. Go up and down stairs. While at home, water the plants. Empty the dishwasher. Or simply march in place. (Just try not to sit down.)
  7. Get those toes tapping. While sitting (sometimes you do have to sit), turn on some music, and let your feet fly.
  8. Wait actively. If you’re forced to wait for an airplane, a hairdresser, a doctor, a restaurant table, or even a slow computer, get up and get moving. Even swaying back and forth is better than sitting.
  9. While watching T.V., start up your treadmill, or walk in place, arms swinging. Or sit during the show but get up during commercials. Walk around the sofa. Tidy up the den. Swing your arms. Chase the dog. Tickle the kids and grandkids.
  10. At shopping malls, walk the full length of the mall first. Enjoy the scenery. Then do your shopping.

* Science, 2005; 307: 530.

** JAMA, 1999; 281: 327.

** JAMA,1999; 281: 335.

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