John Cleese’s classic “stupid walk” burns more calories than a normal walk

John Cleese’s classic “stupid walk” burns more calories than a normal walk

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I walk like John Cleese’s character, Mr. Teabag, in the famous Monty PythonMinistry of Stupid Walks” skit requires significantly more energy expenditure than a normal walking gait because the movement is so inefficient, according to a new article published in the annual Christmas issue of the British Medical Journal. In fact, just 11 minutes a day of walking like Mr. Teabag is equivalent to 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity per week, presenting a new means of increasing cardiovascular fitness.

“Half a century ago, [Ministry of Silly Walks] skit may have inadvertently tapped into a powerful way to improve cardiovascular fitness in adults,” the authors wrote. “Had an initiative to promote inefficient exercise been adopted in the early 1970s, we might now be living among more healthy society.”

The Christmas issue of the BMJ, however, is usually more light-hearted maintains the magazine that the papers published there are still “adhered to the same high standards of novelty, methodological rigor, reporting transparency and readability as applied in the regular publication”. Past years have included articles on topics such as why 27 is not a dangerous age for musicians, the side effects of swallowing a sword, and toxicity measurement from the mixture prepared in Roald Dahl’s 1981 book George’s Miracle Medicine. (It is very toxic indeed.) The most widely read was the infamous 1999 “Magnetic resonance imaging of male and female genital organs during coitus and female sexual arousal.” (We wrote for the paper in 2019 to mark the 20th anniversary of its publication.)

Monty Pythonthe classic Ministry of Silly Walks sketch.

As we reported earlier, the “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch. first broadcast on 15 September 1970 on BBC One. It opens with Mr. Teabag buying a newspaper on his way to work – which takes him a little longer than usual, as his walk has “become a lot sillier lately.” Waiting for him in his office is a gentleman named Mr. Putty (Michael Palin), who is seeking a grant from the ministry to develop his own goofy gait. Putey demonstrates his goofy get-up-and-go, but Teabag isn’t immediately impressed. “It’s not particularly stupid, is it?” he says. “I mean, the right leg isn’t stupid at all, the left leg just does a half-spin forward in the air on every alternate step.” Putty insists that a government grant will allow him to make the walk very stupid indeed. Eventually, Teabag offers him a scholarship to research the Anglo-French Stupid Walk. The sketch is of two Frenchmen demonstrating this “La Marche Futile”.

In 2020, two scientists from Dartmouth College performed a gait analysis of the various silly walks that are displayed, publishing their findings in the magazine Pohodka i poza. They studied the gait cycles of Patty and Teabag in the video of the original 1970 television sketch, as well as Teabag’s gaits from a 1980 live stage performance in Los Angeles. They found that Teabag’s goofy gait was much more variable than a normal human gait – 6.7 times more so – while Putey’s walk in stride was only 3.3 times more variable.

But according to the authors of this latest article, the 2020 study did not measure the caloric expenditure of these silly walks. So Glenn Gesser of Arizona State University and his co-authors decided to “fill this vital research gap.” The authors note that humans have evolved to “move in increasingly efficient ways,” but when it comes to cardiovascular fitness, “movement inefficiency may be a desirable trait.” They believe that it may be possible to reduce energy efficiency by adopting a more inefficient gait, thus increasing cardiovascular fitness without having to exercise for a longer period of time. They called their approach PEMPA: Effort Maximization Practice in Physical Activity.

For their study, Gaesser et al. recruited 13 healthy adults (six women and seven men) aged between 22 and 71 years. Subjects completed three indoor track walking trials: one walking at their usual gait and chosen pace, one walking (to the best of their ability) in the manner of Teabag, and a third attempting to walk like Putey. All subjects wore portable metabolic measurement systems to measure oxygen uptake (ml/kg/min), energy expenditure (kcal/kg/min) and exercise intensity (MET). And most of the subjects seemed to enjoy the experience.

Zoom in / Graph showing measured energy expenditure (kcal/kg/min; 1 kcal=4.18 kj) during participants’ habitual walking and inefficient walking in men and women.

GA Gaesser et al., 2022

“We did not measure minutes spent laughing or number of smiles as secondary outcomes while walking inefficiently,” the authors wrote. “Smiles during ineffective walking trials could not be observed because participants’ mouths were covered by the face mask worn during data collection. However, all participants were noticeably smiling when the mask was removed. In addition, participants’ bursts of laughter were frequently observed by the observing investigator almost whenever participants participated in the Teabag Walk.”

The results: for both men and women, walking like a Teabag resulted in significantly more energy expenditure – about 2.5 times more than walking normally or walking like a Putey. In fact, walking with a tea bag showed an energy intensity of eight METs, which equates to high-intensity exercise. It’s also fun, although one has to be prepared to look a little silly.

“Currently, we cannot advocate a generalization of the findings of this study and a general suggestion of reduced performance when moving to other forms of exercise such as mountaineering, water sports (excluding water aerobics) or urban cycling,” the authors conclude. “Bad dancing has been around for generations, but all too often that lone innovator at your local nightclub or on your cruise ship has been the object of derision rather than rightful admiration (breakdancing aside).”

List image from BBC

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