Physical Exercise and Well-Being: Lessons from Fruit Flies

Our task is to find our own jiggling test tubes

Posted Apr 17, 2011

If it weren't for the fact that the TV set and the refrigerator are so far apart, some of us wouldn't get any exercise at all.
- Joey Adams

A brief article on the University of Michigan website recently caught my attention. It described the research program of Robert Wessells and his colleagues into exercise and aging. These researchers have found that exercise is indeed healthy, resulting in greater vigor among older individuals.

Didn't we know that already? Well, sure, but what was interesting to me is that their research participants were fruit flies, those genetically-identical critters for whom one day of life is equivalent to one year of human existence. (We've all had days like that, I am sure, especially on AMTRAK.) Studying fruit flies means that the long-term effects of exercise can be studied very efficiently.

The procedural challenge of this research was to encourage the fruit flies to exercise, and this research group devised an ingenious procedure that capitalized on inherent fruit fly tendencies. Apparently if a fly is placed in a test tube, it climbs the wall of the tube. If it is knocked to the bottom, it starts climbing again. So, the researchers placed a fly in a test tube, which they jiggled every 20 seconds, dislodging the fly. And it would climb the wall until dislodged again. Over and over. The result is a more vigorous fly.

There seem to be human being implications of this procedure, and I am not referring to the Myth of Sisyphus. Rather, repetition is critical to exercise and its benefits, and if one is in a setting, test tube or otherwise, in which the repetition is demanded, then it will take place.

Our task as human beings who want to exercise more is to find our own jiggling test tubes that require us to do physical exercise on a regular basis*. For me, this means parking my car in the distant corner of a lot and not right next to the store, taking the stairs at work rather than the elevator, and carrying my luggage through an airport rather than wheeling it.

Obviously I cannot dislodge myself from my otherwise sedentary routine every 20 seconds (i.e., 4320 times per day), but heroic prorating suggests that doing so a dozen or so times per day might pay health dividends.

* I am reminded of research that studied the Old Order Amish, among whom obesity is rare, despite genetic predispositions to be overweight and a high-calorie diet. Pedometer results revealed that the typical Amish man, in the course of his everyday life, takes 18.000 steps per day, and the typical Amish woman takes 14.000 steps.

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