Have a little extra junk in your trunk after a long, lovely summer of hot dogs, Häagen-Dazs and hops? Never mind a marathon to whittle away those extra pounds; maybe you just need to fidget more. That’s right—fidget. According to a much-celebrated study published in the January 27, 2005 issue of the journal Science, mundane movement—such as wiggling in your seat during a meeting, tapping your toes, standing up to stretch, straightening up your home, window-shopping, etc.—is actually a more powerful determinant than formal exercise of who is thick and who is thin. Sound too good to be true? Well, try not to sit still and pay attention while your IE Weekly explains how it works.
According to the study, led by Mayo Clinic endocrinologist James Levine, M.D., obese people sit (with no movement), on average, 150 minutes more each day than their naturally lean counterparts. This means obese people burn 350 fewer calories a day than do lean people, which could add up to 10 to 30 pounds a year, the researchers found.
However, this inactivity on the part of obese people isn’t necessarily laziness. Levine’s study suggests that Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is actually what determines who is lean and who is a lardo. NEAT is the calories that people burn in their everyday activities. Obese people tend to have a low NEAT, which means they biologically have a need to sit more—i.e. it’s actually most likely a brain chemical issue. The study found that obese people who lost weight still sat still the same amount of time each day, and thin people who gained weight didn’t sit more—their NEAT remained constant while other factors changed.
In order to calculate even the most minute movement in their test subjects, Mayo Clinic researchers invented a monitoring system that incorporated technology used in fighter-jet control panels. They embedded sensors in customized, data-logging undergarments that the researchers designed for both men and women. This underwear allowed monitoring of body postures and movements of 10 obese people and 10 lean people every half second continuously, 24 hours a day for 10 days. The participants were told to lead a normal life, although they were not allowed to swim (water damage to sensors) and they could only eat food prepared by the clinic. Each day they were issued new underwear and the info from their old underwear was downloaded onto a computer. In the second phase of the study, the obese people were underfed by 1,000 calories and the thin people were overfed by 1,000 calories for 10 days. The fat people lost weight and the thin people gained it, but, according to the smarty-pants panties, nobody’s NEAT budged along with their pudge.
As soon as this study was released, there were articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and on CNN and NPR, amongst many others. Our culture loves the idea that they could lose weight by essentially doing nothing at all. It isn’t quite that simple; you can’t just sit on the couch stuffing your face with Funyuns, thinking that lifting the snack to your mouth is movement. But making yourself into a NEAT-seeking missile also isn’t very hard if you put your mind to it—sway back and forth while waiting in line at the bank, pace while talking on the phone, wash your dishes by hand, tap your hands on the steering wheel and your feet on the floor while driving, park far away from the entrance at the mall and when you’re sitting, change positions every 10 minutes or so. You can fidget your way to a fine behind!