Are you the fidgeter of the office? Do you drum your fingers on the table or tap your feet throughout the morning meeting? Don't be self-conscious about it — you may be adding years to your life.
A new study suggests that fidgeting counteracts some of the negative health effects associated with a sedentary lifestyle.
Though sitting for long hours is associated with health problemsand the risk of early death, British researchers have found that sedentary women who fidget were at no higher risk of death, even if they were sedentary for seven or more hours a day, according to a report published Wednesday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
While the finding of an association between fidgeting and a lower risk of death doesn’t constitute proof that foot tapping will make you live longer, “it’s a really nice suggestion that fidgeting does serve a useful purpose,” says Dr. Seth S. Martin, an assistant professor of medicine and cardiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and associate director of the lipid center at Hopkins’s Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center.
“It makes sense to me that even this low level of energy expenditure might be protective,” says Martin, who is unaffiliated with the new study.
While the researchers aren’t sure how fidgeting makes sedentary folks healthier, they have some theories.
“Fidgeting might influence our metabolic rate in a beneficial way, perhaps offsetting some of the negative effects of sitting,” says study co-author Janet Cade, a professor in the school of food science and nutrition at Leeds University. “For example, it might be linked to improved glucose metabolism. Fidgeting might also affect energy expenditure and intake.”
As part of the study, Cade and her colleagues asked 12,778 women questions at two different intervals. The first questionnaire focused on the participant's eating habits. The follow-up questions focused on their other health behaviors, chronic diseases, physical activity levels, and how much fidgeting they do.
The researchers found that moderate to frequent fidgeting counteracted the impact that sedentariness had when it came to early death risk. And that was even after researchers accounted for numerous other health factors including age, chronic diseases, physical activity level, educational attainment, occupational social status, smoking, alcohol use, fruit and vegetable consumption and time spent sleeping.
Why did the researches focus on fidgeting?
“My husband is a big fidgeter and I thought we should include a question about that in our study,” Cade says. “We were interested in all aspects of lifestyle in relation to long term health outcomes, so I thought it was important to include as much as we could about physical activity [even though] fidgeting is not normally considered in these studies.”
Martin suspects the findings will be equally applicable to men.
It’s not clear how the findings can be framed into advice for the general public, says Dr. Margaret B. Conroy, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“Even though it makes physiological sense that a very small amount of physical activity may account for metabolic activity, how practical is this information for me as a primary care physician?” Conroy asks. “How do you instruct someone to fidget? I think of fidgeting as an unconscious movement."
The important message for Conroy is that the study also reiterated the findings of other researchers, linking health risks to remaining sedentary for long periods of time.
One weaknesses of the study is that it depended solely on the women’s recollections of their fidgetiness, Martin says, and those weren’t necessarily accurate.
“The next step would be to directly measure how much people are fidgeting with a wearable device,” Martin says. “But the fact that they found this association with a crude measurement is really exciting. This study will probably generate a lot of interest and spur more research.”