Monty Python’s Silly Walk Turns Out to be A Ridiculously Good Exercise
Silly walking is extremely metabolic costly, enough to qualify it as “vigorous exercise.”
There’s nothing like a great training montage to inspire you to get in shape (the one from the 2005 Batman Begins with Christian Bale is a personal favorite). But there’s nothing like a 1970’s British satirical comedy skit railing against the inefficiency of bureaucracy to actually get you in shape.
As it turns out, throwing up some Rockette-style high kicks and darting around in a squat like you’re channeling your inner Groucho Marx as John Cleese’s Mr. Teabag did in the Monty Python’s fictional Ministry of Silly Walks might be the best exercise you could do in the shortest amount of time.
Positively skeptical? Just ask exercise physiologists Siddhartha Angadi of the University of Virginia and Glenn Gaesser of Arizona State University. They, along with their colleague David Poole of Kansas State University, had a group of people reenact the silly walk — minus the two-piece suits and bowler hats — and found that its peculiar gait and unhinged ambulation was very metabolic costly, requiring twice as much energy as normal walking, enough to qualify silly walking as “vigorous exercise.”
This is good news if you’re someone who struggles with or can’t find the time to exercise. A little bit of silly walking mixed into your everyday routine — whether doing the laundry or in the office of your hopefully not bureaucratic job — goes a long way.
“Just about 11 minutes a day could get you to meet your physical activity guidelines and laugh at the same time,” Angadi tells Inverse.
The findings were published in the British Medical Journal in December 2022 for its annual Christmas edition of wholesome but often wacky science.
It’s all about inefficiency
For anyone not familiar with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and silly walking, the sketch first aired in September 1970, on BBC One and opens with Mr. Teabag (Cleese’s character) picking up the daily newspaper on his way to work. It takes him quite a bit of time to get to the Ministry of Silly Walks as his walks have “become rather sillier recently.” In his office awaits a Mr. Putey (Michael Palin’s character) seeking a grant from the Ministry to develop his own unique silly walk. Mr. Putey demonstrates his work-in-progress, but Mr. Teabag isn’t at all impressed.
“It's not particularly silly, is it?” he says. “I mean, the right leg isn't silly at all, and the left leg merely does a forward aerial half-turn every alternate step."
Gaesser was a graduate student studying exercise physiology at the University of California, Berkeley, when he first saw the sketch, and while he didn’t think much of it, the scene stuck with him, inspiring his own research many years later.
“In the last 20 years or so, more and more of these skits and [other media] from the old, pre-internet days are now appearing, and [the Monty Python skit] was a good way to kind of see if we could make something scientific out of this,” he tells Inverse.
But what’s so scientifically appealing about silliness? The answer is rooted in inefficiency. You might not realize it but the way you walk is largely determined by how economically efficient it is for you, metabolically speaking.
“There’s a concept called preferred walking speed — that is, if you tell people to walk unprompted at a pace that they find comfortable, they will always settle on a pace that has the least amount of energy expenditure per unit distance covered,” says Angadi.
And he and Gaesser explain there’s a strong evolutionary basis for this. Imagine you’re a caveman spending your days out and about hunting and gathering. The last thing you want your body to do is to spend calories willy-nilly like an unscrupulous teenager with their parent’s credit card since you don’t know when your last meal is coming. To survive, our hominid ancestors evolved to move around without expending a great deal of energy.
“We look for efficiency because we don’t want to have to pay the cost of inefficiency, but inefficiency is a good behavioral trait if you want to expend calories,” says Gaesser.
Silly walking on par with running
Angadi, Gaesser, and Poole knew the gait patterns of silly walking were inefficient, and with inefficiency comes more energy expenditure and, potentially, great health benefits. But what they didn’t know was exactly how much and how great.
The researchers found 13 healthy adults, six women and seven men aged 22 to 71, with no known gait disorders and who were all game to silly walk for the sake of science. The participants first did three trials of normal walking on a 30-meter indoor track, all the while hooked up to lightweight, portable machines measuring their metabolic rates by monitoring oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. (Angadi and Gaesser say the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide gives an idea of how much energy is consumed by the body.)
After normal walking and a break, the participants watched the silly walk sketch on YouTube and were asked to replicate both Mr. Teabag's and Mr. Putey’s walks to the best of their ability. They did two trials of high kicks, shuffles, jiggling, jumping back and forth, and crouching, all while hooked up to the metabolism-measuring machines.
Again, the researchers were prepared for results to show the walk as energetically costly, but they didn’t expect it to be so costly.
“It turned out [silly walking] turned out to be pretty darn inefficient,” says Angadi. “Silly walking-Teabag style came up with an energy intensity almost nine times resting metabolism, which is quite a bit.”
“The Cleese-style silly walk, the Mr. Teabag walk, was so energetically inefficient, that it was the equivalent of running at about fix or six miles per hour, which is vigorous-intensity activity,” adds Gaesser.
For something different: Swap exercise for silly walking
Sadly, the Mr. Putey work-in-progress wasn’t silly enough to be energetically inefficient (better luck after that grant money). But since Mr. Teabag’s silly walk is, you might want to consider incorporating a few minutes of it every day to get the blood pumping and the heart going.
“[Studies have] found that on average, adults get in about 5,000 walking steps a day,” says Gaesser. “We calculated that if someone exchanged 25 percent of those [for silly walking] — so around 1,200 steps — that would be enough to meet the physical activity guidelines.”
Now, you don’t necessarily have to imitate the walk down to an exact aerial half-turn. Angadi and Gaesser say it's enough to mix up your efficient walking with some knee lifts, taking extra long strides, swinging your arms, or other exaggerated movements (but please do it safely). The simplistic beauty of this is that you can get exercise anytime and anywhere and that it can be spread out throughout your day, not relegated to a gym or a dedicated, carved-out-of-your-schedule exercise time.
“The health benefits of physical activity accrue minute by minute, regardless of whether those minutes are all at one time or if they’re spread out throughout the day,” says Gaesser. “There’s a dose-response for physical activity and health benefits [so] just doing a few minutes a day is probably better than not doing it at all.”
It’s important to note this was a small study of healthy individuals. However, the benefits of silly walking aren’t limited to this group, says Gaesser.
And you don’t necessarily have to silly walk (although it does look pretty fun). Gaesser says as long as you vary your movements like with dancing, high-intensity interval training, or whatever other related activity suits your fancy, you could accomplish nearly the same health benefits.
This study is perhaps a first in science-validating comedy. The team has been hoping to hear from Mr. Teabag himself — “I tweeted at [John Cleese] but never heard back,” says Angadi. (Inverse also tried to reach Cleese for comment but had no luck). In any case, if you’re a Monty Python fan who’s always wanted an excuse to silly walk without fear of disapproving eyes, go buy yourself that bowler hat and high kick, skip, and shuffle to your heart’s content.