Alice G. Walton ,CONTRIBUTOR
Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
If you’re concerned that the amount of sitting you do might one day kill you, as some studies have suggested, new research in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine may buck you up: It finds that fidgeting while you work may help offset the negative health effects of sitting for hours at the time, as so many of us do these days. At least in part — it’s certainly no alternative to actual physical activity. But since regular exercise itself can’t quite trump the ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle, the study may bring some encouraging news for those of us who can’t seem to stop moving as we sit.
The researchers in Britain looked at data from 12,000 women who answered questions about their diets, alcohol use, exercise habits, fidgeting and many other lifestyle habits. They also provided information about their health, body weight and what, if any, health conditions they’d experienced over the years; the team was also informed about any participants who died during the course of the study. At the end of 12 years, the team looked for any relationships between the variables.
As other studies have, the team found that longer time spent sitting was linked to mortality. Among women sat for more than seven hours per day and who didn’t fidget much, their risk of mortality was 43% higher than those who sat for less than five hours. (When the team adjusted for things like smoking and drinking, the mortality risk for sitting for more than seven hours a day was still higher by 30%.)
But what was really interesting was that being more fidgety seemed to counteract this effect: That is, the middle- and high-fidgeting groups didn’t have any greater risk of death even sitting more than seven hours every day.
“When sitting for prolonged periods, any movement might be good,” Janet Cade, of the University of Leeds, tells me. “So although it might not be possible to sit less during the day due to work commitments, if people fidget at their desk it could be beneficial.”
As for the mechanism, it’s likely that fidgeting rouses the metabolism just enough to offset the effects that long hours of sedentariness can have. “Although our study was not able to study potential mechanisms, fidgeting might have beneficial effects through a role in offsetting the negative effects of sitting,” says Cade. “We know that sitting for long periods has an adverse effect on metabolism, in particular, glucose metabolism. Also, sitting reduces energy expenditure and potentially increases energy intakes.”
Of course, some caveats exist. One is that the study couldn’t demonstrate a causal relationship – there may be other factors at play. The other is that the study was based on self-report, which can be inconsistent. “We are not saying that the results are ’cause and effect,’” says Cade, “but we have shown a strong association between sitting, fidgeting and mortality. Our measure of fidgeting was self-report and so subject to reporting bias. People might not know how much they fidget.”
Fidgeting is definitely not a cure for the effects of sitting for so many hours each day, which so many of us do. But it’s an interesting idea – that what’s been considered an undesirable trait in kids and adults alike may actually be good for us. And that even small amounts of activity throughout the day can have a cumulative effect on our health.
“Our results support the suggestion that it’s best to avoid sitting still for long periods of time,” says Cade, “and even fidgeting may offer enough of a break to make a difference.”
So as you sit to read this, do your body a favor: Fidget around a bit. If anyone tells you it’s rude or annoying, just tell them you’re stealthily getting active, and possibly expanding your lifespan.