It’s Legit to Fidget: Not only is fidgeting natural, it’s essential for good health

It’s Legit to Fidget: Not only is fidgeting natural, it’s essential for good health

A recent paper by noted researcher James Levine1 takes a deep dive into a murky part our human movement repertoire, fidgeting. Although not well defined, we pretty much know fidgeting when we see it, mostly in kids in whom it can be endearing, but also in adults where it is less well tolerated. Because fidgeting is so common, we might wonder: Why do kids fidget? Why does fidgeting often disappear as we age? And perhaps most importantly, does fidgeting serve any purpose?

The short answer is perhaps surprising: not only is fidgeting natural, but it is essential for good health. Unhappily, as a culture we have chosen to suppress fidgeting, and the results are a litany of unfortunate health consequences. In his paper Levine documents a range of problems, including metabolic, musculoskeletal, malignancy, and mortality. Specific examples include cardiovascular disease, obesity, type two diabetes, hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, lower back pain, venous stasis, low mood.

These are remarkable, even implausible, claims. But as Levine points out, fidgeting has been a part of the human motor toolkit since, well, since well before we were human, going all the way back to our invertebrate ancestors, worms. It turns out that modern fish fidget, as do mice. Tellingly if fidgeting is suppressed by genetic manipulation mice become inactive and obese. Our primate cousins also fidget, as do we humans. So it seems fidgeting must be important; why would it be so widely represented among species?

Mice also fidget, and tellingly, if fidgeting is suppressed by genetic manipulation mice become inactive and obese.

We’ve long assumed that fidgets were simply random movements, but it turns out that fidgeting is more accurately thought of as a neurologically programmed rhythmic movement of a body part. These highly ordered movements can be disrupted by some illnesses, such as Parkinson’s disease, as well as by physical constraints, such as walking in high heeled shoes.

Because fidgeting is so common and widely found in nature, we might ask what function fidgeting serves. In a fascinating experiment2 subjects were carefully overfed by 1,000 calories for 10 weeks. As expected, all subjects gained weight, but the non-fidgeters gained much more weight. Seemingly fidgeting allowed those prone to fidget a sort of overflow valve to offload as many as 700 unneeded calories each day. The researchers concluded that fidgeting was central to energy homeostasis.

Fidgeting allowed those prone to fidget a sort of overflow valve to offload as many as 700 unneeded calories each day

We fidget throughout our lives, beginning in the womb, and continued fidgeting helps our infant selves learn to walk. Because fidgeting decreases with aging, children are famously more fidgety than adults. And as fidgeting wanes with age, so too does muscle mass, a phenomenon known as sarcopenia. Interestingly, epidemiologic research shows that fidgeters live longer than sedentary types.3

Exactly why fidgeting declines with age isn’t well understood but may be that our cultural opposition to fidgeting. Why fidgeting should be singled out for criticism isn’t clear, but may stem from just how uncomfortable other people fidgeting makes many of us feel. Fully a third of adults suffer from so called “misokinesia”4, the inability to tolerate fidgeting in others. Additionally, children are sternly told to “sit still” or “stop fidgeting!” in the mistaken belief that movement interferes with attention. This approach is particularly hard on children with ADHD, a condition not of their choosing which nevertheless invites criticism and correction from adults. If fidgeting is in fact normal and healthful, shouldn’t we allow kid and even adults to freely fidget?

Indeed, should be looking for ways to encourage fidgeting?

It’s a truism that, when you find yourself in a deep hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. Just so with fidgeting: a major step would be to simply let kids, as well as adults, fidget as their biology directs, without criticism or penalty. We’ve long understood that “recess” is a great escape valve for children confined to desks in school, an opportunity to “get the fidgets out”. If only this approach could somehow be extended to the entire school day.

Because it’s so difficult to change adult’s expectations for the behavior of children, we had the idea that chairs that encouraged, or even better required, fidgeting to stay seated would be a way to sanction kids’ squirming. We created a do-it-yourself design for such a chair, and we’ve now given away the plans for this “ButtOn Chair” to over 4,000 people on a dedicated website: Anyone with a sheet of plywood, a lacrosse ball, a few tools, and a free afternoon can cobble together a stool for their kid that almost guarantees fidgeting.

But can anything be done for adults? As it happens, some adults are already natural fidgeters, and are healthier for it.5 Those adults who aren’t lucky enough to fidget naturally can perhaps be helped by creating more “fidget permissive” environments. The commercial success of fidget spinners suggests that we might be able to overcome our collective misokinesia and embrace movement.

Many researchers have prescribed “more movement” while sitting as a public health imperative, but to date some recommendations have been vague e.g. “… squirm shamelessly”6 while others have been improbable, e.g. “Squat [instead of sit] like the Hadza”7.

But what’s really needed is a way to make squirming the default mode. And that’s where active sitting comes into the picture. By making one’s seat slightly unstable, sitting suddenly requires moment to moment postural adjustments to stay balanced and upright; continuous, subtle muscular effort that is, well, a lot like natural fidgeting, actually. In this way, active sitting is a way to sneak fidgeting into your home office, and perhaps even your real office, without giving offense to your fidgeting critical co-workers. Just say, “It’s not me, it’s my chair” and get on with your day.

1The Fidget Factor and the obesity paradox. How small movements have big impact

2Interindividual variation in posture allocation: possible role in human obesity

3Sitting Time, Fidgeting, and All-Cause Mortality in the UK Women's Cohort Study

4Misokinesia is a sensitivity to seeing others fidget that is prevalent in the general population

5Sitting Time, Fidgeting, and All-Cause Mortality in the UK Women's Cohort Study

6‘Exercised’ Review: Born to Run?

7Squat or kneel instead of sitting to protect your health, study finds

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