Behind the headlines

Can fidgeting improve your health?

Fidgeting in a team meeting

We analyse news coverage of research suggesting that fidgeting can erase the damaging effects of spending a lot of time sitting down.

“Fidgeting can help you live longer” and “Restlessness at work can save your life” were the optimistic headlines in some newspapers. They were responding to a study that looked at the effects of fidgeting on the damaging effects of spending a lot of time sitting down.

Sedentary behaviour (ie time spent sitting or lying down, but not while sleeping or doing exercise) is already linked to a higher risk of death, although the reasons why are not fully understood. Even if you meet the guidelines for how physically active you are, it’s still possible to spend an unhealthy amount of time sitting down.

The study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine and carried out by researchers from University College London, Edinburgh and Leeds, found that sitting for more than seven hours a day was linked to a higher risk of death compared with those who sat for less than five hours a day.

But in people who were in the “middle” or “high” categories of fidgeting, this association disappeared. As the study authors said: “Fidgeting appeared to remove the association between longer sitting times and subsequent mortality.”

Breaking up long periods of time spent sitting can help improve your heart health, however more research is needed into the benefits of fidgeting behaviour

Emily Reeve
Senior Cardiac Nurse at the BHF

One of the strengths of the study is that it followed a large number of people – 12,778, who were followed over more than 10 years. However, it only looked at women and we don’t know whether the findings would have been different in men. The range in ages was fairly wide, from 37 to 78, with an average age of 51.

A weakness of the study is that it relied on people’s awareness of their own fidgeting. Participants were asked: On a scale from 1 to 10 please indicate how much of your time you spend fidgeting. 1 would represent ‘no fidgeting at all’ and 10 would represent ‘constant fidgeting.’” The researchers then divided people into three fidgeting groups: low (1 or 2); middle (3 or 4); or high (5–10).

How the media covered this story

The research was reported widely, including in the Express, Mail, Guardian, Independent, Times, Yorkshire Evening Post and others. Although much of the news coverage focussed on sitting at work, the study didn’t distinguish between sitting down in an office and sitting down during leisure time, for example while reading or watching TV.

The Mail Online reported: “Fidgeting can improve markers of good health, such as body mass index.” In fact the study did not find this, or even look at whether body mass index was affected by fidgeting.

The Express sought opinions from a GP and obesity specialist, who said that fidgeting, like any other movement, would increase calorie expenditure. They also spoke to a chiropractor who said: “Fidgeting allows the body to redistribute pressure points, thereby helping to reduce pain and stiffness.” But we don’t know that either of these things caused the findings shown.

However, the Mail and Express did both accurately report Professor Janet Cade, one of the study authors, as saying more research is needed. The Guardian was clearest on the limitations of the study, saying: “The findings are only suggestive so far, because the women may have fidgeted more or less than they thought. Another unknown is whether fidgeting is a proxy for something else that impacts on people’s health.”

The researchers call for more work to find the best ways to measure fidgeting, as well as more studies to look at the effects of fidgeting. At the moment, there is much we don’t know, including why fidgeting might help protect your health.

Emily Reeve, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said:

“We know that breaking up long periods of time spent sitting can help improve your heart health, however more research is needed into the benefits of fidgeting behaviour.

“If you work in an office, go and talk to colleagues rather than sending an email and whilst watching the TV, get up in the ad break and make a cup of tea. Even small, ten minute changes can help reduce your risk of heart problems and our ten minute challenges are a useful tool to get started.”

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