Unorthodox Methods of Reining in Holiday Weight Gain
Happy Holidays friends! I hope everyone here in the eastern US is staying safe and cozy in the face of this nasty winter storm.
So, research consistently shows that adults tend to gain weight during the holidays. This increase is usually fairly modest, mind you. But the problem is that about half of that weight gain is not subsequently lost. Indeed, it has been hypothesized that the gradual increase on the scale that many of us observe over the course of years is actually accumulated, in large part, during the holidays.
The reason is pretty obvious - people tend to eat more energy dense foods, and in larger portions, during the holidays (not to mention alcohol). But another potential source of fat gain is diminished physical activity. We know that people are less active in the winter than in any other season (and I think for most of us that pretty much rings true).
To that end, I thought we’d take a look at a couple of experimental trials published in the Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal, testing some unconventional ways of amplifying physical activity which you might (or might not) find helpful.
This Week's Research Highlights
A few years ago, Dartmouth scientists, for some reason, performed a biomechanical analysis of the very unusual gaits famously displayed by John Cleese and Michael Palin in “The Ministry of Silly Walks” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. They determined that both of these walking techniques, unsurprisingly, were highly inefficient compared to typical human ambulation. Of course, inefficiency isn't really what most of us are shooting for when we're walking.
But inefficient movement, over time, would be expected to improve cardiovascular fitness and boost energy expenditure, both of which are highly desirable in the modern obesogenic environment. To capture these potential benefits, researchers in the US recruited 13 healthy adults with no history of gait disorders, and had them perform three 5-minute long walking trials around an indoor course. During the first trial, each participant walked in their usual manner and speed. Then, in the next two trials, they were asked to try to replicate both of the Silly Walks from the show.
The more subdued technique employed by Michael Palin's character, described within the skit as being a work in progress and thus "not particularly silly," did not substantially increase energy expenditure or VO2. However, the expert-level silly walk demonstrated by the Minister (portrayed by John Cleese) resulted in about 2.5 times higher energy expenditure and VO2. Every minute of walking in this manner increased energy expenditure by an average of 8.0 calories in male participants and by 5.2 calories in female participants. The researchers calculated that spending around 12-19 minutes per day walking in the silly style could increase daily energy expenditure by around 100 calories, and adults could meet the current weekly recommendation for vigorous physical activity by walking in this fashion regularly for about 11 minutes per day. They conclude by musing:
"Had an initiative to promote inefficient movement been adopted in the early 1970s, we might now be living among a healthier society."
Daniel Lieberman has argued that there are only two realistic avenues through which we can effectively promote exercise: either change infrastructure and society to make it unavoidable, or find a way to make exercise fun so people will engage in it voluntarily. To see whether the latter strategy might be effective (during the time of year when most of us are least receptive to physical activity), researchers at Loughborough University recruited 107 inactive adults and randomly assigned them to either a control group or an intervention group. The intervention group received a daily email throughout Advent (December 1-24) which contained a Christmas themed workout to be performed that day, like for example "Abdominal Snowman." Each exercise routine was offered at three intensity levels: Easy Elf (low intensity), Moderate Mrs. Claus (moderate intensity), and Strenuous Santa (high intensity). Sure enough, activity tracker data revealed that the intervention group got about 37 minutes more physical activity daily than the control group over the period of the study. Furthermore, compared to the control group, the intervention group got about one hour less sedentary time daily. Most importantly, participants largely enjoyed the intervention, resulting in high adherence.
Random Trivia & Weird News
🧠 Some small mammals, such as shrews, weasels, and moles, can literally shrink their brains in the winter to conserve energy.
Surviving harsh winters (like the one we seem to be facing now) is a serious challenge for small mammals. A lot of them, like hedgehogs and chipmunks, get through via hibernation. But creatures that stay awake and metabolically active have to keep eating and maintain body temperature even when food is scarce. How do they do it?
One way to save on their biological energy bill is to reduce expensive tissues — like the brain. The common shrew, for instance, can undergo reductions in brain mass of up to 21%, which mostly regrows in the spring. This is known as the Dehnel phenomenon, named for the Polish zoologist who first documented it.
Now, having a brain that shrinks in response to frigid temperatures doesn't sound super appealing. However, the ability of these critters to regenerate bone and brain tissue actually could have some interesting medical applications. 🧐
Podcasts We Loved This Week
- Herman Pontzer: Does exercise affect body weight? Via Inside Exercise.
- Dean Buonomano: Time is way weirder than you think. Via The Ezra Klein Show.
Products We Are Enjoying
When it’s bitterly cold, no kitchen tool is more valuable than an electric kettle. This one has a sleek, modern design, and it heats up super fast with its 1200-watt heating element. Plus, it can keep your water hot for up to an hour, which is pretty handy.
humanOS Catalog Feature of the Week
Happy holidays and we will see y'all next week! 🎄