Monty Python’s silly walk is actually vigorous exercise, researchers say

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Behold the Monty Python workout. It’s silly! It’s walky! It works, according to an important — or, at least, actual — study published today in the annual holiday edition of the BMJ, a British medical journal.

Employing high-tech science and a tittering adolescent’s sensibility, the study’s researchers filmed volunteers perambulating like the ungainly bureaucrats in the Monty Python comedy troupe’s Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, while wearing metabolic monitors.

Their aim was to determine the physiological effects of ambling around a track in the manner of the actor John Cleese, playing the apparently boneless Mr. Teabag, the head of the Ministry of Silly Walks, or Michael Palin’s Mr. Putey, a wannabe silly walker whose screwball stroll needs work.

The scientists soberly wondered whether silly-fying people’s walking form would up the intensity and caloric expenditure of their exercise and make an otherwise simple stroll into a serious workout. The study is part of the BMJ’s annual holiday lineup of legitimate but offbeat research.

“What we wanted to know was, how would deliberately inefficient walking affect energy costs?” said Glenn Gaesser, a professor of exercise physiology at Arizona State University in Phoenix, who led the new study.

Or, to quote Mr. Teabag, if your walking becomes “rather sillier,” could that change be beneficial for your body or just a threat to your dignity?

To find out, Gaesser and his colleagues gathered 13 healthy adults, ages 22 to 71, and had them watch the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch several times.

For those unfamiliar with the skit, Mr. Teabag leads his ministry by example, moving like an unhinged heron, high-kicking, low-bobbing and randomly whisking up and jiggling his knees with abandon. The more-sedate Mr. Putey merely hitches his left leg out a bit with every other step, a motion the disapproving Mr. Teabag finds “not particularly silly.”

After absorbing the basics of silly walking, the study volunteers donned a facial apparatus to measure their oxygen uptake and started walking around a short track in Gaesser’s lab. First, they walked as themselves, at their preferred pace, for five minutes. Then, they copied Mr. Putey, hooking out their left leg sometimes, for another five minutes. Finally, they went full-on silly, imitating Mr. Teabag’s demented eggbeater strides, for the concluding five minutes, generally giggling throughout, Gaesser said.

Afterward, the scientists calculated the walkers’ speed and metabolic costs during each form.

Silly walking like Mr. Teabag proved to be much harder than un-silly walking, requiring about 2.5 times as much energy. Putey-style strolling, meanwhile, was comparable to normal walking in terms of energy expenditure, but slower.

In practical terms, these findings suggest super-silly walking can be strenuous enough to qualify as “vigorous exercise,” Gaesser said. If someone adopts a silly walk for at least 11 minutes a day, he continued, they will meet the standard recommendation of at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week, which should meaningfully improve health and aerobic fitness.

Surprisingly, these findings turn out to have unexpected confirmation in human evolution, said David Raichlen, a professor of human and evolutionary biology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who studies mobility and evolution but was not involved with this study.

“Across human evolution, one of our key adaptive advantages was the development of a very economical, bipedal walking gait,” he said, “where we spend more than 50 percent less energy than our closest living relatives, chimpanzees.”

As a result, normal walking barely challenges our hearts and lungs or burns many calories. (Gaesser said he understands walking is an enormous challenge for people with some disabilities, and the study was not meant, in any way, to exclude or mock them.)

But we can upset this walking ease “through biomechanical tweaks like those seen in the silly walks,” Raichlen said, increasing the energy expenditure of getting from place to place.

Gaesser, in fact, believes the utility of silly walking may lie in using it to replace our most quotidian strolls. Heading to the bus stop? Lift your knees, he said. Dip your rump. You’ll burn extra calories and improve your fitness.

If you worry about drawing uncomfortable stares, you can silly walk in the indoor comfort of your home or closed office, Gaesser said.

But why? Maybe, we should consider silly walking not as an exercise in humiliation, but an exercise in exercise and a chance, briefly, for goofy, unbridled joy. Wiggle. Skip. Hopscotch. Flail. Freestyle and smile back at confused onlookers. Exhort them to join, and begin a conga line of unconventional walks, ushering in, together, a healthier, sillier 2023.

Do you have a fitness question? Email YourMove@washpost.com and we may answer your question in a future column.

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