The upside to fidgeting
As kids, we’re often told to stop fidgeting and just sit still. But new research shows that fidgeting can, in fact, be good for us.
Published online in the American Journal of Physiology in July this year, the research found that fidgeting our lower limbs while sitting can help prevent vascular disease.
“Many of us sit for hours at a time, whether it’s binge watching our favourite TV show or working at a computer,” said lead author Jaume Padilla, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at University of Missouri.
The researchers therefore wanted to see if fidgeting our lower limbs (that is, moving them on purpose) could counter the negative effects of all that sitting.
“While we expected fidgeting to increase blood flow to the lower limbs, we were quite surprised to find this would be sufficient to prevent a decline in arterial function,” said Padilla.
This follows on from 2015 research, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, which concluded that, “fidgeting may reduce the risk of all-cause mortality associated with excessive sitting time”.
Co-lead author of that study, Professor Janet Cade, said those findings “… raise questions about whether the negative associations with fidgeting, such as rudeness or lack of concentration, should persist if such simple movements are beneficial for our health”.
But we can’t overlook those negative associations.
Children may be told off for fidgeting in public, but adults are also frowned upon for such behaviour. That’s because fidgeting is often seen as a sign of boredom. It can also be distracting, annoying or come across as rude.
For this reason, it’s worth being mindful of those around you when you fidget. (The last thing you want to do is irritate your boss during an important meeting.)
But just because fidgeting can be bothersome to others, doesn’t mean we should stop doing it altogether. When the situation is suitable (say, when you’re alone on the couch watching Game of Thrones), try to fidget.
While fidgeting won’t negate all the harmful effects of prolonged sitting, it can definitely help, says exercise physiologist and Director of Rebound Health, Andrew Daubney.
Daubney says that when we sit for prolonged periods, waste products build up in our blood vessels. This build-up may contribute to cardiovascular disease.
“When we’re walking and moving about, the muscle contractions help pump these waste products back into circulations and then, eventually, out of the body.”
Consequently, he recommends moving around often to break up prolonged periods of sitting.
Just get moving
This new approach to fidgeting is just another facet of how we’re becoming more aware of the dangers of prolonged sitting. One person who has paid particular attention to them is Dr James Levine, author of Get Up!.
“Sitting is more dangerous than smoking… and is more treacherous than parachuting. We are sitting ourselves to death,” he said in a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
It seems we’re responding to such concerns, with standing desks, treadmill desks and walking meetings popping up as alternatives to traditional workplace arrangements.
While they’re all steps in the right direction, the fact remains that sometimes we must be seated. It’s in those situations we should consider fidgeting.
“Purposeful fidgeting stimulates the muscles to pump the waste products back through the veins to be removed and recycled by the body,” says Daubney.
He advises fidgeting “as often as you can”. That doesn’t mean you have to move your legs at all times; he says research indicates that fidgeting for one minute every five minutes is “enough to offset the danger associated with prolonged sitting”.
It doesn’t matter how you choose to fidget your lower limbs. He says you could do ankle rolls, calf raises, hamstring stretches or just tap your heels; the key is to keep them moving.
While walking is better for your health than fidgeting, Padilla says it offers a “good alternative” when you can’t leave your seat.
“Any movement is better than no movement.”
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