Wednesday, February 15, 2012

This Might Just be the Dumbest "Fitness" Study I've Ever Read!

File this under "How could this possibly have been published", along with, "Really. Really?".

From the University of Tennessee comes a paper that quantifies the calories burned by adults who while watching an hour of television, were instructed to stand up and step in place during commercial breaks.

The results?

Apparently you can take around 2,000 steps during an hour of television if you just get up and step on the spot during commercials.

My favourite part though has to be the researchers' conclusion,
"Because adults are spending more time than ever in front of the TV screen and only a small percentage of American adults engage in adequate amounts (30 min·d-1) of physical activity using standard approaches, we believe that modifying TV-viewing behaviors by having adults step in place during commercial breaks could be useful in promoting physical activity."
While I think it's unbelievable that there are at least 3 healthy living researchers out there who think that public health departments and allied health professionals should recommend nonsense as a means to combat obesity or to promote physical activity (because it's complete nonsense to imagine anyone would ever stand up during commercials and step in place on a regular and ongoing basis), what's more unbelievable is that this nonsense also passed peer review.

But hey, maybe I'm the crazy one. Maybe this is a phenomenally great idea, and so in that spirit, here are ten other super awesome recommendations of my own:
  • When you go to start your car, instead of just getting in, walk around your car at least 20 times, or better yet - run.
  • When you go to the supermarket, carry, don't push, your cart.
  • While waiting for your meal to arrive in a restaurant do jumping jacks.
  • When reading stories to your children pick your kids up and read to them while walking up and down your stairs.
  • When surfing the net do one burpee every time you navigate to a new webpage.
  • If you do take the elevator, do pushups while it's moving.
  • When you shovel your driveway, first shovel it, then shovel it back onto your driveway, then shovel it off again.
  • Tape your fork and knife to at least 10lb dumbbells so that every bite's a workout
  • When you go through a drive thru, put your car in neutral and push.
  • While waiting in your doctor's office, do wall squats.
Who knows, maybe those folks from Tennessee will help to quantify the impact of these oh so helpful suggestions?

STEEVES, J., THOMPSON, D., & BASSETT, D. (2012). Energy Cost of Stepping in Place while Watching Television Commercials Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 44 (2), 330-335 DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31822d797e

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  1. I'm afraid that your sarcastic recommendations will sooner or later be added into some very serious material.
    I first skimmed the article, missed the middle bit and went from the Tennessee folks recommendation to your list and all of that together made a full sense. Or, didn't make any sense but in a coherent manner.

    By the way, I'm the person who does battements jetés or other ballet exercises while waiting for the water to boil. Much more fun than stepping on the spot.

  2. Yeah, I sometimes do callisthenics while watching TV, mostly because TV is boring and I get restless. I only watch 3-4 hours of it a week. I spend many times that in front of a computer screen. In fact, I doubt that the statement "adults are spending more time than ever in front of the TV screen" is true.

  3. Roman Korol7:27 am

    Another howler that I've read, advice for couch potatoes (sorry, didn't save the link), was to put a bag of ice rolled in a towel on your belly while crashed out watching TV, and lose weight without moving a muscle. That's because the cold makes your body burn more calories. Wonderful.

  4. Anonymous7:32 am

    While they aren't 10lb dumbbells, I just have to mention that on Breakfast Television this morning, they showed a set of eating utensils that weight 1kg each to help "work out" while eating.

    And no, I wasn't walking in place during the commercials. I was getting ready for work with the show on in the background (but I just HAD to look when I heard them talking about those. ;)

  5. Ever been to Tennessee? Believe me, this is considered strenuous exercise...

  6. It's kind of the exercise equivalent of taking vitamins or powdered "greens" supplements instead of actually eating fruits or vegetables. (

  7. I love your suggestions. It's 5 am, thanks for my first laugh of the day.

    I'll bet that "study" was paid for by television networks or cable companies.

  8. Put a plastic screen in front of the TV and bounce a tennis ball off the screen for an hour like Steve McQueen did in some prison war movie.. only there was no TV in his cell, but he had something better, a sturdy brick wall.

  9. Thanks Yoni for a very good laugh this morning. 10 extra calories spent contracting my diaphragm!
    But seriously my recmmendation is to look your TV program at the gym while cycling or running on the treadmill. I personnaly look at the sport channel while during my weight training. In fact, I watch the TV program during a short brake between 2 exercices instead the inverse (doing exercise during adds)

  10. Anonymous9:35 am

    If you ever quit your day job you've got a great career ahead of you running government job creation projects !

  11. Anonymous9:46 am

    One of the Biggest Loser winners suggested on the LWN that you do lunges as you push your cart at the grocery store.

  12. I don't feel like trying to find this through my Uni library right now, but I just looked at the abstract and what the what indeed! A sample size of only 23 AND the "conclusions" are the most obvious thing I've ever seen..."Stepping in place during commercials can increase the energy cost and amount of activity performed during TV viewing." DUH! Of course getting off your butt USES more energy and increases the amount of activity. Scratchings ones butt through the commercials while continuing to sit would probably increase energy use and the amount of 'activity'. NONE of that means it is in any way significant. Oi.

  13. With Americans' love of their obscenely huge SUVs, pushing our cars in the drive-thru sounds like a decent workout. Makes me regret my Prius purchase... almost.

    Less sarcastically, this post rekindles my yearning for a treadmill desk.

  14. I literally burst out laughing reading your recommended exercises to supplement the Tennesse researchers work. Absolutely hilarious but so astute Dr. Freedhoff. While typing this I am bobbing my neck back and forth and hopping on one leg on the spot, but it's kinda hard............

  15. Anonymous10:58 am

    I typically enjoy your blog, but do not understand your angst with this novel study.

    The imergence of inactivity physiology/sedentary behavior research suggests that prolonged bouts of sitting is an independent risk factor for all-cause mortality. Anything that gets people to move more and sit less is a step in the right direction, and if simply reducing sitting time during commercials can accomplish this, I struggle to comprehend how this is "dumb".

    Charles Fountaine, PhD
    University of Minnesota Duluth

    1. It's dumb because there's no chance, not in a million years, that directing people to stand up and step in place during commercial breaks is something that they will ever, ever do.

      If you disagree, please feel free to do this yourself for the next month or so and get back to me about it's realistic viability.

    2. Anonymous11:16 am

      I have to agree with Dr. Fountaine.

      We don't do stepping in place, but my husband and I use commercial breaks for sit ups, push ups and lunges for the exact reason that it's a little less sitting. I doubt this is going to work for your average lazy Joe, and nobody is going to drop hundreds of pounds with this, but with a recommendation of about 10,000 steps a day, two hours of television can get you almost half way there.

      For people who have been looking for a way to get in a bit more activity without a huge lifestyle change, this simple solution might actually work.

    3. Anonymous11:21 am

      I feel referring to something as "dumb" is a childish term. If you wish to critique the the practicality of a strategy such as stepping during commercials, that is fair criticism, and even the authors of the study addressed this, in that it may result in boredom. Do I envision stepping during commercials to become the latest and greatest fad? - no. However, it becomes another option that for some individuals is a realistic option.

      Regardless, my overall take on the efficacy of such a strategy is regardless whether one is watching TV, working at one's desk at work, etc., breaking up prolonged bouts of sitting by simply standing up, stepping in place, walking to the water fountain, ALL are behavior modifications that should be promoted.

    4. It's just easier than typing "conspicuously unintelligent"

  16. Linda P.11:02 am

    I didn't realize people still watched commercials unless it was the Superbowl!

    Love your ideas though Dr. Freedhoff! I think I will implement those starting today! ;)

  17. I actually like to stretch or do ab work while I watch TV. Sometimes I even test myself to hold wall squats or plank for the entire commercial break.
    I don't necessarily think that other people will do this, but I actually find it fun.

  18. So as a nutrition student, this got me thinking:

    If a person were to watch Tv and eat chips (as many do), will the exercise, counter act their intake of calories?
    1hr of TV= 2000 steps
    2,000 steps is approximately one mile
    walking one mile can burn up to 100 kcal.
    in a bag of lays (plain) chips 15 chips= 160kcal

    So the so called exercise you are doing burns 9.3 chips.

    Is this really effective? If I were to sit in front of the TV eating chips, I would engulf many many more than 9.3 chips.

    1. Anonymous12:35 pm

      ...which is why exercising soley for weight control is a very inefficient strategy.

  19. I am laughing as I read this, more because of how amazed you are that this is a recommendation! If for some reason to ever doubt your gender, this would be a conclusive evidence of your male-dom. Every women's magazine out there almost always mentions getting up and moving during commercial breaks, doing squats while you push the grocery cart, etc. I always find the ones where they recommend doing things at the grocery store the most amusing - as if any woman would want to be caught dead doing squats while standing in line at the grocery store!!!! I think if I saw someone doing squats while in line at the grocery store, I wouldn't admire their dedication to health, I would WONDER about their mental health status and wonder if they had an unhealthy exercise addiction and an eating disorder.

  20. Comments are really interesting. I wonder if the appeal of this study is demographic: that the investigators/reviewers demographics overlap with those of people who would do this spontaneously? It's a kinder thought than a simplistic, condescending vibe of suggesting silly stuff to people you don't really understand or relate to, I guess. I'm sure the main appeal of the thesis is just that it's so cheap, and it probably feeds into - and can certainly end up reinforcing - "lazy" stereotypes, too.

    I watch a lot of television shows, but I watch them on DVD - no commercial breaks - so this suggestion is irrelevant to me, and my inclination is to dismiss it out of hand, too, on the basis of assuming "most" or maybe "all" people who need more activity would simply never do this. But I also spontaneously get up frequently, and I exercise several hours a day outside - I am clearly not the target audience.

    On the other hand, I sit right next to a woman at work who has pushed (successfully) for us to get standing desks here because of the "sitting is killing us" stuff that's coming out. I don't have anything against standing desks, but I don't have any trouble just standing up and moving around regularly, either - which is making me surprisingly able to recognize my personal bafflement as similar to that of people who think commercial-break calisthenics are a great idea.

    I guess it comes down to there being almost as many potentially levers as there are people who need some kind of help getting in motion, and whatever you have in your toolkit, as counterintuitive as it may seem to you, could be the thing that gets someone on the right track.

  21. Anonymous9:42 pm

    I'm from Tennessee, and this is embarrassing. Not that we weren't pretty down already about our high obesity and diabetes rates, but now we have people recommending stepping in place during the commercials rather than turning off the TV, taking a walk outside ( we have decent walking weather roughly 8 months of the year, and tolerable for a month or two more, most years), and fixing a healthy dinner.
    We're just starting to try to figure out preventive medicine around here, which is probably why this was funded. We're desperate. Our people are sick, and dying earlier than they should of completely preventable diseases. Our efforts are a lot like trying to find your garden hose in a junky garage while your house is burning down, but we are trying. We need more people like you. Thanks for your blog.

  22. This reminds me of when Exercise TV teamed up with a company to put exercise videos on TV screens on gas pumps, so you have no excuse to just stand there while filling up your car...

    Hey, if *everybody* is doing grapevines in the gas station, how can it look dumb?

  23. Yeah, not many people will probably do it. But research is research, there are a million bad ideas for every good one. Failing is part of the process of coming up with better ideas.

    I'm now visualizing a future sedentary race that gets up during commercials. Just wait 1000 years or so, lol.

    I think the answer to our obesity problems is the number 5 :-).

  24. Anonymous4:06 pm

    HAHAHAHAHHAHA...I laughed my heart out at those 'recommendations'...

    That 'NEAT' crap is worse still,like I can change my whole personality and subconscious body language and start fidgeting like crazy to burn extra calories.

  25. Anonymous7:30 pm

    Audible laughter!
    The "push your car through the drive through" was my favorite - it works on multiple levels, see, both as incremental exercise, and as an aversive experience. :) (Do I really, really want that taco? Yes, yes, I do. Well, OK, then.) Might even lead to smaller cars in a land of SUVs.

    Seriously though: Have you, uh, seen Ferris' "Four Hour Body?" Because he really does recommend air squats/wall presses prior to eating... (also the cold pack as cited earlier in comments.)

    Also agree 100% with Anon 2/15 6:42 about the magnitude of the intervention needed. I'm all about the 'sneaking activity into the day.' I slip push-up breaks in when my colleagues take coffee breaks now (I don't want to be That Guy, but we had a hundred-pushup challenge here at this hospital.) I talk with patients every day about what's realistic for them, what can they do, what can they sustain. Standing desks work great for some, are useless for others, etc.. Some people decide they're going to take the stairs at work. If someone wants to do this - great. It actually would be more activity than many of my patients get. As a population based intervention... meh.

    This is... interesting... and spawned some hilarity... but is more of the level of a poster presentation or group's blog post than worthy of an article. So: if you ask people to step in place for a certain amount of time in response to a certain environmental cue, they take a certain number of steps? And that this can be multiplied out to predict outcomes?
    I just want to make sure I have that right.

    A more interesting study would be adherence rates in a larger population over >12 weeks with and without case management cueing, and demographic and environmental factors affecting adherence.

    But the pushing the car, and reshoveling the snow, those are some real exercise!

  26. Um, just because you wouldn't do it doesn't mean no one does or would. (And the plural of anecdote isn't data, either.)

    Matter of fact, real, live, people do in fact do step/march during TV shows and commercials. And they even squeeze in quick bodyweight exercises! Can you imagine that?!

    [Check out and Google "Leslie Sansone" and you'll find that marching in place isn't nearly as goofy and improbable as you think. And that everyday folks do a lot of things to stay fit that you'd probably dismiss as improbable.]

    People who want to be active without carving out large, dedicated chunks of "exercise time" are more creative and effective than you're giving them credit for.

    And since most folks are NEVER going to bolt on significant incremental exercise to their schedules, wellness pros would do well to open their minds and focus on lifestyle activity - sustainable changes that increase activity levels while blending as seamlessly as possible into client lives.

  27. Anonymous7:57 pm

    Yoni, I really find your (and most of your commenters') reaction to this study bizarre. Look, the #1 reason people *say* they don't exercise is that they don't have the time. Meanwhile, they're watching 30-40 h of TV a week. Exercise, as normally conceived, requires you to set aside a special block of time, for half an hour or more nearly every day of the week, to go and get active -- often requiring a change of clothes (can't do it in a suit or a sleek dress), a trip to a special location (gym, park -- whatever), and maybe a shower afterward, particularly if you're headed in to work and it's hot out. Now consider: (1) how crazy it must have sounded in the 1960s when people started suggesting that large numbers of sedentary office workers and assembly-line workers should or would take up the practice just outlined; (2) that this TV training requires none of that, but instead gets incorporated, complete with automated regular cues, into an activity most people are already doing, with no extra time or scheduling commitment and when they're likely dressed more casually and OK with getting sweaty; (3) the emerging evidence on sedentary behavior, independent of conventional exercise, as a contributor to metabolic disease and mortality, so that even people who go for a morning jog and then sit on their butts at the office and then the couch for the rest of the day would still be healthier if they broke up the latter phases with brief, intermittent bouts of activity.

    I think this is brilliant. It half makes me wish I watched TV ;) .

    To those pointedly referencing the sample size: folks, the title is "A randomized pilot study ..."