Sensors Mag

The Fidget Factor

March 21, 2006 By: Stephanie vL Henkel, Sensors

Back when the Earth's crust was still cooling and I was going on dates, I stepped out with two or three dudes who were really OK except for one behavioral peculiarity. It's an entirely masculine one; I've never seen a woman do it. What they did was bounce one knee rapidly up and down. Again and again, for minutes at a time. These gentlemen were all quite slender, and sensing technology has come forward with an explanation for their reedy physiques.

Twitching and fidgeting burn off calories, and their number has been scientifically quantified. As I learned a couple of days ago from a story in the Los Angeles Times, caloric incineration can be measured while the subject is strapped into a mask or sequestered under a hood connected to an analyzer that measures the volume of air inhaled as well as the ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide exhaled during a particular activity. It turns out that precisely 4.825 calories are burned for each liter of oxygen used up. There are a few variations on this technique, but the list of activities (e.g., bobsledding, worm-digging) presented in the story I read would logically preclude all but the sensor-based alternative.

Smarty Pants

James Levine, MD, PhD, an endocrinologist and professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, persuaded 20 volunteers to wear some very special sensor-equipped underwear that detects the sort of small motions that can drive the physically placid mad. Examples: Drumming your fingers, squirming around in your seat, pacing up and down in a small space. Levine's data, reported in Science, say that annoying your airplane seatmate can get rid of 350 calories a day. (Levine also kept meticulous records of his subjects' dietary intake.) You can compare that figure to the 68 calories per hour burned in light kissing and do your own calculations because I don't know or need to know how many hours a day you engage in light or any other kind of kissing.

Make This Work for You!

Now I will spring a terrible pun on you: The bulk of the U.S. population is overweight. Really. And the saddest chunk of our hefty citizenry is the children, headed straight for diabetes, high blood pressure, spinal and joint problems, and assorted other ailments. After a New Hampshire snow storm I see plenty of skinny grannies and grandpas out there shoveling their walks. But no kids. I do see the kids, though, waddling from the front door to the school bus and then back again at the end of a mostly sit-down day. (It's not their winter clothes that give them that duck-like gait—the local youths consider it extremely uncool to wear anything warm in cold weather.)

So what their parents might consider is to make this sensor underwear their offsprings' only option and to keep track of the collected data. Face it—whoever does the laundry checks the skivvies for rips and shot elastic anyway. Accounting time comes, the week's totals of burned calories are announced, and pretty soon someone is busy with the broom (or snow shovel) and someone else is practicing tap dance steps.

And the parents? I really think they'd be down with this plan too. They'd reveal their own numbers to maintain peace in the family, but probably keep it to themselves exactly how they lost some of those calories.

Diagnostic Applications?

One other note is that the same technology might be quite helpful in at least a preliminary diagnosis of otherwise inexplicable weight gains or losses. If someone eating a controlled diet is either rounding up to the nearest dress size or losing ground on the scales, intelligent underwear could provide some data more reliable than self-reported hours of washing the dog. Or light kissing.

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