Exercise, On The ‘Fly’

Alex Rebits gets an up close and personal look at his table’s vial of fruit flies. (photo by Rodney Curtis/School Life Troy)

Flies and fifth-graders exercised together at Barnard Elementary on Tuesday.

In one room, a few brave students were wired to an ECG machine and their heart rates were shown on a big screen to the entire class. In the other room, flies worked out in test tubes.

You read that right; sets of fruit flies ran up and down tubes in a rudimentary exercise facility that mimics your local gym.

“It’s interesting that you’re able to do stuff with flies that you think you can’t,” said fifth-grader Samantha Steiner.

Alex Rebits, Noel Renu and Molly Szlaga watch to see which set of fruit flies climbs their vial the fastest.
(photo by Rodney Curtis/School Life Troy)

“We’ve been doing this fly demonstration, showing how exercise helps their hearts perform better when they get older and they run faster,” explained Assistant Professor of Physiology at WSU, Robert Wessells, who was visiting Barnard and giving one of the presentations.

So wait, flies exercise? Apparently so; who knew?

“We built an exercise machine for the fruit flies so that we can run them in the lab on a daily exercise schedule. It’s more like a treadmill; it lifts them up and drops them down,” continued Wessells. “The kids do it by hand here. When you knock them down, they run up the side of the tube.”

“First we knock all the flies down to the bottom of the tube, then we watch as they go all the way back up. We’re seeing which ones go back to the top the fastest,” explained fifth-grader Alex Rebits.

“We’re looking at how fast fruit flies go,” said fifth-grader Molly Szlaga.

“These flies are the fastest because they exercise,” observed fifth-grader Noel Renu.

Fruit flies go through their workout regimen in their vials. (photo by Rodney Curtis/School Life Troy)

This experience “tries to demonstrate to the kids that it’s important to be active. If you are more active, your heart will be preserved more as you get older,” continued Professor Wessells. “The life expectancy of a fruit fly is about three months. At about five weeks they become middle aged and start showing symptoms of slowing down.”

“On average, the flies do really well if they’ve been trained to exercise. And we have some mutant flies that do really well too. We’re using them to identify genes that are activated during exercise,” said Wessells.

“The kids really enjoy seeing how much faster than the others the flies that we’ve exercised run,” said Wessells. “I think it makes a big impression on them about how important it is to be active.”

“To learn that you can do stuff with these flies is surprising. You can just trick them to think they’re exercising too,” said fifth-grader Samantha Steiner.

“It was very interesting how they made the Power Tower experiment where they put the vials in and they had flies who exercised, flies who didn’t and flies who were tricked into thinking they were exercising,” said Sofie Palmkoeck.

“I was surprised that they were actually able to trick flies into thinking that they were exercising just by adjusting the temperature,” said fifth-grader Alex Marine.

Cameron Pinchock listens to the presentation about the brain/heart connection. (photo by Rodney Curtis/School Life Troy)

“We learned more about what connects the brain to the heart. The flies have an open heart; that means their heart is one line throughout their whole body. We did a Power Tower with the vials. We smacked them down on the table and that made the flies go down, then we would see which ones would be the fastest back to the top.” explained Sofie and Samantha.

“It was surprising that we can connect fly heartbeats to our heartbeats,” said student Cassie Wilson. “It’s interesting that flies can teach us something about ourselves.”

“Flies seem so different from us but you can compare their hearts to our hearts,” added student Shyla Kumar.

Jake Meyers watches the classroom screen as Dr. Pat Mueller from WSU finishes hooking him up to an ECG monitor to show his heartrate to the class. (photo by Rodney Curtis/School Life Troy)

Over in the other room — which the students rotated between — an ECG showed how their heart speeds up when they jogged in place, stood up and sat down.

“It’s really good for kids to see visually what exercise does and I think that was accomplished by bringing in the flies and having the ECG machine,” said WSU doctoral student Deena Damschroder.

“The big thing about today is teaching the kids that exercise is important and understanding how your brain and your heart can work together to make you exercise and make you healthier,” said WSU doctoral student Joseph Mannozzi. “I hope that by seeing this today, kids will think what we do, science, is cool and that they’ll try it themselves.”

The visiting physiologists definitely made an impression. “Exercise is good for your body — even if you don’t do a lot — it’s still good for you. It prevents 30 different diseases,” said student Sofie Palmkoeck.

At the end of the presentations, fifth-grader Georgio Koja asked, “How many beats does your heart beat per day?”

Grace Gildon keeps her hands on her heart, in the form of a stress ball handed out by the WSU visitors.
(photo by Rodney Curtis/School Life Troy)

The presenters then asked the class to do the math, figuring out how many times per minute a heart beats, multiplied by how many minutes there are in a day. Principal Melanie Morey, who stopped into the class, just said “Wow!” as the kids worked through the problem.

(Here’s a fun exercise: Calculate how many times your own heart beats in a day. Find your pulse and quietly count how many beats you feel in a minute. Then multiply that by 1,440 for the number of minutes in a day. If you can figure that out, you’re as smart as a fifth-grader!)

Wrapping up the program, School Life Troy asked some of the kids what they thought.

“Now when I see one of those, I’m not gonna be like, ‘Eww, a fly.’ I’m gonna be like, wow, that’s something I can relate to,” answered Alex Marine.

“I’m gonna look at flies differently too, but probably not the ones that buzz and drive me nuts. Those things really annoy me,” said Cassie Wilson.

“I’ll try not to swat them out of the air, because I’ll think ‘That’s kind of like me,’ my very, very far sibling,” concluded Shyla Kumar.