MSN-NZ, New Zealand


Men: can you fidget yourself fit?

By Hugh Wilson

Forget hardcore gym sessions, some health experts believe that -- thanks to the importance of incidental activity -- we can fidget ourselves fitter.

If you've been piling on the pounds recently you can at least take comfort from the fact that you're far from alone. The fact that we are getting fatter, as a nation and a gender, is not in dispute. But scientists are increasingly split on why that might be so.

Of course, everybody agrees that we have become too sedentary -- we spend too long in front of screens and not long enough moving our bodies. But a growing number of experts now believe the best way to correct that imbalance is not by encouraging the sort of hardcore gym workouts that few of us will actually do. Instead, they believe we should fidget ourselves fit.

Incidental exercise

The experts are not kidding. They think we should be focusing on more of what they term 'incidental activity' -- the movements we make throughout the day that are not formal exercise. That's because the decline in incidental activity in the last few decades has pretty much mirrored the expansion of the nation's girth.

"If you think about it, we now do less movement around the home than we did in the past, because of labour-saving devices and so on," says Ken Fox, a professor in exercise, nutrition and health sciences. "And we do far less activity in the workplace, with the rise of office-based work. We're just not as active in our daily routines, and the effects of that can't be discounted."

Fidget for fitness?

But do experts really mean we should fidget to get fit? Well, yes and no. It's fair to say that proponents of the theory take a fairly broad view of what constitutes fidgeting, which can mean anything from chopping onions to walking around the office. But in effect, as Professor Fox says, any movement is good.

And studies increasingly back that up. The latest, from researchers from Queen's University in Ontario, Canada found that small increases in incidental activity can bolster heart and lung health and cut the chances of cardiovascular disease.

"It's encouraging to know that if we just increase our incidental activity slightly -- a little bit more work around the house, or walking down the hall to speak with a co-worker as opposed to sending an email -- we can really benefit our health in the long-term," said Ashlee McGuire, who worked on the study. "Best of all, these activities don't take up a lot of time, they're not difficult to do and you don't have to go to a gym."

And while that study measured fitness, a study from 2008 by researchers at Iowa State University focused on weight and found that leaner people tend to fidget more.

Time to fidget

So how do you get more incidental activity into your life? Really, it couldn't be easier. You've probably heard advice to take the stairs to the office rather than using the lift, and you may well have ignored it. But a heavy man, walking up stairs for just three minutes can burn 20 or 30 calories.

That doesn't sound much, but now factor in walking the same stairs after lunch, and you've burned between 40 and 60 calories without even trying. Over a working week that's 200 or 300 calories burned from one modest change in routine. Now think about that over a year.

Because that is what incidental activity is about -- not the one-off hit of a sweaty gym session, but the cumulative effect of lots of small changes over long periods. Professor Fox says that he gets up from his desk every 45 minutes and walks around the building. Even if you can only manage five minutes of moderate walking round the office, that will burn 17 calories.

Every little helps

The numbers quickly start to add up. Walk over to a colleague and talk face-to-face rather than sending him an email. Stand up and stretch for a few minutes. Cook your dinner rather than ordering a takeaway -- not only will the meal be healthier, you'll have burned calories peeling, chopping and mashing.

"It's the laws of physics that any movement has to help," says Professor Fox. "Any light activity can help if you do it frequently."

And frequency is the key. Take every opportunity to add incidental activity to your daily routine. It's important, because most experts agree that we rarely pile on weight -- we accumulate it slowly year after year. If you do more everyday movement, you don't have to let the weight creep on. Because remember, before labour-saving devices, gyms and the rise of office work, our grandparents stayed slim just by being more active in their everyday lives.