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The Power of Fidgeting


Why do people fidget and how to stop fidgeting, are commonly asked questions, but this story may compell you to think about fidgeting in a different and powerful way.


“Patrick just can’t hold still,” was a common complaint at parent-teacher conferences. Having to sit still in class seemed like a prison sentence, cruel and unusual punishment to force a young boy in the prime of life to be anchored to an orange plastic chair with a bumpy texture and a scooped-shape to ensure I hunched forward. “He needs Ritalin,” they told my parents, and so my parents took me to a doctor and got me a prescription for Ritalin. Once or twice a day, I was sent out of class to walk over to the nurse’s office to take my Ritalin dose so that I could return to class, remain stationary and pretend to learn subjects whose names I can’t even recall. “This is for your own good,” a teacher once said to me as I was dismissed in front of my classmates to go take my medicine.

But I suspected otherwise. It seemed unnatural that I should have to sit so perfectly still when my body was still telling me to run about, to explore, to see what I could fit under or find a way to crawl over. At the time, it seemed much like an evil plot against me, against all children. And, as with so many things, time has proven me right. Take that, various elementary and middle school teachers.

Well, it turns out that those who spend a great deal of time sitting have a wildly high mortality rate compared to those who don’t. In fact, it’s estimated that sitting for one hour shaves two off your life expectancy. It may feel like common sense to say that people who sit a great deal are not in the same shape as people who are generally more active, but the degree to which that’s true is surprising. Not surprising in the “oh, I wouldn’t have guessed” way, either. It’s more the “I’m dying and I had no idea” sort of surprising. Those who sit for prolonged periods of time showed to be 8% more likely to develop colon cancer, 10% more likely to develop uterine cancer and even showed to be at higher risk of lung cancer. This was on top of any cardiovascular consequences you might otherwise suspect.

And the best part (“best” meaning here “sensational” but most literally translating to “apocalyptically grim”) is the fact these results were regardless of whether or not people avidly went to the gym or played sports after hours. In other words, being physically active at a later point in the day was shown to not negate the damage done by sitting even six hours a day. So, if you’ve been hitting the stationary bike when you get home or jogging laps around the block but feel like you’re still struggling to get a handle on your physical health, the good news it’s not in your head.
Again, in this instance, “good news” translates to “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you this…”

So what can be done to prevent you from slowly turning into a rigid corpse anchor to your work station, rigor mortis causing you click your mouse involuntarily?

Fidget. Those tiny, meaning movements you don’t even realize you do? They make a huge difference.

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Now, let’s get ahead of any misconceptions. Fidgeting is not the magic bullet that’s going to put you in a bikini. If that’s even something you’re interested. However, fidgeting falls into the one of the NEAT movements that help counteract a sedentary lifestyle. For those who were unaware, like me, NEAT stands for “non-exercise activity thermogenesis”. I know. Once you read it, it seems so obvious. But what that means is these are small things you either do naturally or casually that cause positive metabolic boosts in your body. When stationary, your body is burning a calorie an hour. It drops to this low-caloric burn almost immediately. However something as simple as bending forward to scratch your ankle can cause a spike in your burn rate.

This is not to suggest you become a compulsive-scratcher to an attempt to save your life. That might lead you in a weird direction. Rather what this is indicates is how little effort is actually required to make a difference. The key is not the amount of exertion as much as how often. According to the New York Times Phys Ed writer Gretchen Reynolds, making time every twenty minutes to get up and walk around for a minute or two drastically changes your body’s physiology.

Now, again, this article is not titled “One Weird Trick to a Better Bikini Body”. Firstly because my one weird trick turned out to be weirder than anyone expected and no one wanted to see me in a bikini anyway.

Secondly because this is not the singular path to a supreme fitness. The path to proper fitness is a multi-faceted journey. Whereas fitness is classically thought of as a battle fought on two fronts, diet and exercise, we now understand there to be a third battlefront… mitigating inactivity.

While aerobic activities like Zumba classes and weight-loss supplements can help you increase your weight loss, it’s time to also begin considering what you may do to minimize how often you sit still without doing anything. While this is vitally important, it doesn’t take much to accomplish. Set a timer for every twenty minutes and walk up a flight of stairs, do even ten squats before washing your hands in the bathroom, or just stand a stretch for a few minutes. These minor but frequent activities will remove the roadblocks sitting for hours at a time put on your exercise and dietary efforts.

Remember, if simply bending over to scratch your ankle can cause a calorie-burning spike, it will take more consistency than exertion to make a difference.

If only my teachers had known the power of fidgeting. Instead of telling my parents I needed pharmaceuticals maybe I’d be a fitness titan. Ah, well.

Author Biography
Patrick is a San Diego-based writer for Libbera, who spends his time at the archery with his daughter and snorkeling with his girlfriend. Finding better ways to eat is of constant interest to him. He’s here to share tips about healthy living and chew bubble gum. He has ample amounts of both.