Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fidgeting Your Way to Fitness

If work is interfering with your plans for a workout today, perhaps you should drum your fingers against your desktop in frustration. Doing so may help, in some small way, to maintain or augment your fitness, at least according to a study published last month in the journal Medicine; Science in Sports Exercise.
The study examined the role in physical fitness of “incidental” physical activity, which involves any movements that are not formally exercise. Also called “activities of daily living,” they include walking to the window, bobbing your foot as you sit, pulling weeds in the yard, chopping onions for dinner and similar movements. Once, people accumulated large amounts of this unplanned exertion, since the world contained fewer cars, offices, elevators and takeout options. But levels of incidental physical activity have fallen sharply, and the amount that any one of us completes varies widely, since some people naturally fidget more than others and some have more physically demanding occupations, like nursing or mothering small, caroming children.
Could these differences in incidental physical activity affect physical fitness? That question matters, since cardiorespiratory fitness — as measured by VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen a person can take in during exercise — increasingly is being recognized as an important predictor of health. A review article published last year in The Journal of Psychopharmacology concluded that a person’s VO2 max could be “at least as important as the traditional risk factors,” like blood pressure and cholesterol readings, in the risk for premature death.
Formal exercise, especially aerobic exercise, improves VO2 max. That’s proven. But can incidental activity do the same?
To see, researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, recruited a group of healthy but sedentary and overweight adult men and women and equipped them with a device that would record all of the steps they took over the course of a day, along with most of their other movements. The volunteers were to wear the devices, called accelerometers, for a minimum of four days and as many as seven, one of which had to be a weekend day. The Canadian researchers also determined each person’s VO2 max.
What they found was that, most obviously, none of their volunteers moved much, as is typical of modern Americans and, apparently, Canadians. The men and women averaged about five hours of movement of any kind during a typical day, and most of it was extremely light activity. Based on the number of steps they took per minute, the volunteers were moving at a pace of less than three miles per hour, and most of that movement was sporadic. They’d stroll for a few minutes, then not move again for quite some time. Only very rarely did any of the volunteers speed up enough to bump their incidental activity level into the moderate range, meaning that they were moving about 3.5 miles per hour, and then only for a minute or two at a time.
Current formal activity guidelines advise each of us to complete at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week, with those 30 minutes accumulated in sustained bouts of at least 10 minutes at a time.
Not a single one of the Canadian volunteers met those guidelines. But those who moved the most, and especially those few who occasionally moved briskly, did have significantly higher cardiorespiratory fitness than those who moved the least. They weren’t exercising. They may have been hurrying to catch the bus during the occasional, brief moderate-intensity spurt, but even that was enough, it seems, to bump up VO2 max and, potentially, reduce risks of health problems.
This study is not the first to find benefits from fidgeting and unplanned movement. But most earlier work looked at weight control. In a fascinating 2008 study, researchers tracked the daily movements of lean and obese women and found that the leaner group more frequently fidgeted, stood up and walked around. “If the obese women adopted the activity patterns of the lean women,” the authors wrote, they would burn an additional 300 calories every day.
In focusing on fitness instead of weight, the Canadian study has especially broad implications. “Our findings suggest that if you move even a little, that can help your fitness, even if you don’t meet the formal exercise guidelines,” said Robert Ross, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University and co-author of the study with K. Ashlee McGuire, a doctoral candidate.
It’s possible, of course, that the reverse is true and some people are born with better natural fitness and, as a result, move more. But in this case, Dr. Ross doesn’t think so. “This was a group of generally low-fitness individuals,” he said, “so we believe that activity was driving increases in fitness,” and not vice versa.
The Canadian research does raise some interesting questions even for those of us who exercise. Should we try to add more unplanned activity to our days? Can we? Isn’t it then planned activity — that is, exercise? And if we do fidget and incidentally move more, can we exercise less?
“There’s no reason that I can see not to add more incidental activity,” Dr. Ross said. “Take the stairs; park farther away” — actions that add to the number of steps you take each day. “But formal exercise is still the best thing you can do for your health,” he said. “Try to meet the guidelines.”
If you’re not meeting them, then by all means, fidget.