Traditionally, fidgeting has been considered an undesirable trait, but this tendency could provide unforeseen benefits.
Over the past few years, the long-term impact of a sedentary lifestyle has been shown to pose real health hazards, as this lifestyle has been blamed as a contributor to a variety of illnesses and even for hastening death. And, while there is a negative connotation to the term, a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t just mean ‘lazy.’ The majority of those who live a sedentary lifestyle either work at jobs that entail prolonged sitting, or simply lack the physical ability to easily walk around.
A recent UK study involving 12,778 women has found a surprising exception to the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. Study participants’ average daily sitting time was measured, and participants were also classified in ‘low,’ ‘medium,’ or ‘high’ fidgeting groups. Participants were followed for an average of 12 years. It turns out that there was a positive correlation between fidgeting and longevity and that the correlation was strong enough even to cancel out the increased mortality associated with prolonged sitting.
Traditionally, fidgeting is considered a sign of undesirable traits such as anxiety, self-consciousness, distraction, and even social awkwardness. But this link between fidgeting and longevity could point to an unforeseen beneficial aspect of fidgeting. Researchers attempting to explain the link suggest that fidgeting consumes energy and increases caloric expenditure, thus preventing weight gain and the resulting health complications of being overweight. However, weight loss may not be the only explanation, as fidgeting was found to be correlated with a decrease in all-cause mortality, and the many different causes of mortality are not all related to a person’s weight.
Why Do We Fidget?
It turns out that fidgeting, the tendency to make small, purposeless movements, has a strong genetic component. This has been closely studied in mice, and it is believed that humans are quite similar. The Bsx gene produces proteins that are found in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that is highly influential in controlling a variety of important physiological functions, including appetite. Research mice lacking this gene are observed to be less physically active than their counterparts who possess the gene. Researchers say that humans have the same gene, and that it might act in a similar way, ultimately having an influence on the drive to make unnecessary physical movements.
While fidgeting is socially awkward, it seems to have a strangely beneficial impact on health and longevity. Fidgeting is certainly conscious and voluntary, yet it is almost always lacking in purpose, with a spontaneous, almost habitual or impulsive characteristic. The genetic link to fidgeting certainly makes sense even on an intuitive level, given that some people are more fidgety than others. But the benefits of fidgeting in terms of longevity are an unexpected vindication for anyone who has been accused of being too fidgety.
Do you consider your patients’ fidgeting bothersome?
Hagger-Johnson G, et al. Sitting time, fidgeting, and all-cause mortality in the UK Women’s Cohort Study. Am J Prev Med. 2016 Feb;50(2):154-160.
Sakkou M. A role for brain-specific homeobox factor Bsx in the control of hyperphagia and locomotory behavior. Cell Metab. 2007;5(6):450-463.