Fact/Fiction: Does going to the cinema count as a light workout?

Old news, truthfully retold. Can it really be true that a trip to the flicks could be incorporated into your exercise regime?

How it was told

It’s January, the pressure to shed the Christmas pounds is overwhelming and the cinema offers a sanctuary from the terrible weather.

But could it bring even more than that to the party (a good film aside)? Could it even help you shift the weight and improve your physical health?

In a plot twist fit for any blockbuster flick, reports in various UK media outlets last week suggested that going to the cinema could be counted as a light workout.

Mail Online kicked things off with the headline: “Sitting in the cinema ‘counts as a light workout’ because getting immersed in a film speeds up your heart rate, scientists find”.

That, more or less, set the tone for the rest of the reports with Yahoo!, the Evening Standard, The Times and Metro doing little to deviate from the script.

The online branch of the Daily Express did their bit to add some showbiz with their sensational effort of: “Scientists claim cinema trips as good as EXERCISE in heart and brain benefits – Here’s why”.

All of the stories stemmed from the University College London report, paid for and commissioned by cinema chain Vue, and the research received top billing abroad too. The New York Post and The Australian are just a couple of the outlets overseas which covered the story.

No doubt, the news was greeted with delight by film fanatics and reluctant gym-goers – but, once the credits roll, is there any truth in it?

Facts. Checked

The story is about as believable as an entry in the box-office-busting Fast and Furious series.

The headlines are based on a small part of the report entitled The Benefit of Getting Lost.

Researchers assessed two groups of volunteers – 51 film fans who watched the 2019 two-hour live action adaptation of Aladdin at the Vue Westfield Stratford cinema in East London and a control group of 26 people who read a novel for the same amount of time. Both groups were subjected to pre and post-performance questionnaires as well as wearing biometric sensors to measure heart rate, electrodermal activity and body temperature.

From here, academics noted that participants were in the “healthy heart zone of 40-80 per cent of maximum heart rate for 40 minutes” during the film. The report states that: “Thought very light, this level of stimulation can help to build cardio fitness levels and burn fat.”

It’s fair to say that pointing to this as evidence of a light workout might be slightly overstating matters. And don’t take our word for it – one of the researchers behind the report, UCL neuroscientist Joseph Devlin, has distanced himself from the claims made in the stories. He tweeted in response: “I don’t think @eyethinkdcr [fellow UCL academic Daniel C Richardson] and I would characterise this as light exercise, rather we observed heart rates to be in the ‘healthy heart zone’ as defined by the British Heart Foundation for about 40 minutes on average.”

Even in his discussion in the report, Devlin points to other areas of its findings that earn more merit – namely how immersing yourself in the cinema can “promote sustained attention” and “strengthen our ability to concentrate and avoid distractions”.

So the mental benefits outweigh the physical and even a light workout would fall below NHS guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of intensive work. And that’s before you take into account the popcorn and sweets scoffed at a showing.

To be fair, the news outlets, on the whole, make it clear that the report was backed by Vue and the Daily Express warns that the small sample size means the findings “should be taken with a pinch of salt”.

But that doesn’t make up for the spurious headlines in this case – stick to sport or more strenuous exercise for your health kick.