A popular claim that watching scary movies burns as many calories as a walk re-circulates each year around during spooky season. But in reality, movies don’t really burn calories. The claim wasn’t the results of a rigorous study and was misleading. In fact, it was only made for publicity purposes.
What’s the claim about movies burning calories
From clickbait site to serious websites like The Guardian, it’s common to the headline once a year that watching movies like The Shining burn calories because they get your heart racing. And while that’s not false, the claim that watching a scary movie is somehow equivalent or better to exercise is untrue.
According to The Guardian’s piece the year the study came out:
“Those who watched a 90-minute horror film were likely to burn up to 113 calories – the same sort of figure as a half-hour walk. Some movies were more effective than others, however: of the 10 films studied, the top calorie-burners were the classic Stanley Kubrick chiller The Shining (184 calories), Jaws (161 calories) and The Exorcist (158 calories).”
For starters, sitting and doing nothing for 90 minutes can burn anywhere from 60 to 130 calories, depending on the person. You get those points for just existing. So go ahead and watch Steel Magnolias because scaring yourself silly isn’t going to help you lose weight.
The “study” is not really a study
What’s even more problematic is that while there is an academic behind the claims (and metabolism measurements):
- He didn’t set out to perform a rigorous scientific study.
- The data was never published in a scientific journal (which is important because that requires a study to be worthwhile, constructed correctly, and subjects it to peer review).
- The results are unimpressive at best (and genuinely misleading at worst).
The source of the info is Dr. Richard Mackenzie, listed as “senior lecturer and specialist in cell metabolism and physiology at the University of Westminster in London” at the time. He is cited as saying (via university press release, not a journal study) that:
While the scientists did measure heart rate, oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output, the study involved just 10 people and was commissioned by the movie rental firm Lovefilm (now owned by Amazon).
Mackenzie noted that:
“As the pulse quickens and blood pumps around the body faster, the body experiences a surge in adrenaline. It is this release of fast-acting adrenaline, produced during short bursts of intense stress (or in this case, brought on by fear), which is known to lower the appetite, increase the basal metabolic rate and ultimately burn a higher level of calories.”
The top 5 movies he asked people to watch (with calories burned during viewing) were:
1. The Shining: 184 calories
2. Jaws: 161 calories
3. The Exorcist: 158 calories
4. Alien: 152 calories
5. Saw: 133 calories
No, movies don’t burn calories in any helpful way
When Snopes (cited below) checked up on the even more bombastic claim people had made after hearing about the study (that watching horror movies could help reduce obesity), the noted: “The study was neither peer-reviewed nor published (nor, apparently, meant to be taken seriously). No follow-up studies replicating its findings, and people who wish to lose weight are probably better advised to get some exercise.”
Snopes then went on to point out the obscenely small sample size, the lack of replication of the study (mandatory of a study to actually make its way towards being considered scientific), and the failure to follow-up with subjects’ actual weight loss.
But the most important point is that even if everything had been done properly, the results aren’t impressive.
The average length of a feature film is around 90 minutes, during which the average person sitting on their butts and doing nothing burns 60 – 130 calories. If you stand, you might burn 100 – 200 calories, more than the 184 that people watching The Shining burned. The person watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the “study” only burned 107 calories – so we’re pretty skeptical of all of these measurements at this point.
The best we can say is that maybe some people burn a couple of extra calories watching scary movies that they would if they were just watching a blank wall. In other words, get your exercise if you want to burn calories in a meaningful way. — WTF fun facts
Source: “Does Watching Horror Movies Reduce Risk of Obesity?” — Snopes