- Fidgeting can be described as non-exercise movement that burns calories and provides many health benefits.
- Though long considered random, fidgets may be inborn, purposeful signals intended to drive larger movements.
- Fidgeting is a form of release that may help improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline.
- The modern world is not designed to accommodate what may be an essential need for more movement and activity.
Unless you’re physically restricted, try this: Gently bounce your legs under the table as you read this post. Make room to shake out your hands and wiggle your fingers. Repeat every few minutes. Within the hour, get up and walk around the room or up and down a hallway a couple of times.
Congratulations! You’ve just increased your “fidget factor.” But what is that, and why would you want to do it?
Understanding the Fidget Factor
The fidget factor is defined as the rate at which you burn calories (expend energy) through non-exercise movements or “micro-movements.” The more you fidget, the higher your rate. Though often associated with stress release and focus in children with ADHD and some other forms of neurodiversity, anyone at any age can be fidgety.
Small, repetitive, fidgety movements can actually help prevent the development of sitting disease, a term that encompasses the signs and symptoms of deadly metabolic syndrome, such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, nerve damage, and obesity or dangerous excess weight gain around the midsection. At least those are the benefits outlined in a “Hypothesis and Theory” article written by James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Medicine at Mayo Clinic and President of Foundation Ipsen, a biopharmaceutical company and research center based in Paris, France, which was published earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. Studies have also linked sedentary behavior to worsening mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline. And these are just some of the 30+ chronic medical conditions associated with excessive sitting and overall lack of movement.
Dr. Levine defines a “fidget” not as a random, uncontrollable movement, as it is often viewed, but rather as an intentional, rhythmic movement of a body part programmed by neurological mediators. A fidget may be the precursor to a larger body movement, he points out, the manifestation of an inborn rhythm that tells us to get up and move. Fidgeting is thought to be a method of self-regulation that can calm or energize us, one that helps us reduce stress, avoid distraction, and fine-tune our ability to focus. Although excessive movement is often considered a problem, Dr. Levine proposes that it can also be a solution.
In his paper “The Fidget Factor and the Obesity Paradox. How Small Movements Have Big Impact,” Dr. Levine suggests that fidgeting behavior is a series of natural impulses that are purposeful and neurologically regulated by naturally occurring chemical mediators in the body to help trigger movement and physical productivity. Unfortunately, Dr. Levine points out, most of our innate fidget factors have been greatly suppressed by modern interior design and technology that encourages sitting and crushes our natural urge to move for long periods of time.
People who are not confined to chairs in their work or personal environments move several hours more per day on average than those who are chair-restricted. In his research, Dr. Levine has also found that lean people move an average of 2 1/4 hours more per day than people with obesity. Other research indicates that people who fidget throughout the day can burn ten times or approximately 350 more calories than people who sit still. Even more calories are burned if a person fidgets while standing or moving.
Previous studies have cited the many health benefits of fidgeting and having a high fidget factor. Presenting scientific evidence, Dr. Levine points out that people are happier, healthier, and more successful when their fidget factors are freed. He says a good solution to what he calls a “public health calamity” of fidget crushing is to design schools and workplaces in innovative ways that free up people’s innate fidget factors and encourage more movement throughout each day. This means creating more active working and learning environments as opposed to chair-based settings.
Until you live and work in such carefully designed environments, you can switch up your daily routine to incorporate more ways to expend energy without formal exercise. It may be too distracting for others in the workplace if you’re constantly bouncing your legs under your desk or waving your arms in the air at work. Still, you can take routine walk-and-stretch breaks, walk a little faster than usual whenever it’s safe, try holding walking meetings instead of sit-downs with your coworkers, and give some thought to using a standing desk. If you have physical limitations but want to boost your fidget factor, speak with your healthcare providers about how to safely incorporate more small movements into your daily routine.
Levine, James A. The Fidget Factor and the obesity paradox. How small movements have big impact. Front Sports Act Living (Exercise Physiology). April 3, 2023; (5).