As I type this, my left leg is bouncing restlessly against the floor, my head keeps shifting toward the window, and I’m trying hard not to fiddle with an errant paper clip on my desk. Yes, I fidget regularly and have since I was little. Sometimes the leg bouncing or hand fiddling comes from stress or nervousness (or too much caffeine), but often it’s just a natural, subconscious action—one that others sometimes find annoying and off-putting.
Manners experts say that fidgeting is impolite, and body language experts warn that it’s the kiss of death in job interviews and first dates. I agree that fidgeting suggests anxiety or a lack of concentration; even I think that when I see people fidget, and I’m a frequent offender myself. However, what it conveys and what it actually does are two different things. In fact, the mental and physical benefits of fidgeting are so advantageous, they might make you look at toe tappers and finger drummers in a new light.
A Key to Concentration
Teachers tend to scold students who squirm and wiggle in their seats. One of my high school teachers actually told a classmate to sit on her hands for the entire period because she kept twirling her hair and tapping her pencil on the desk; he assumed that she wasn’t paying attention. But recent research has shown that such restless habits actually aid concentration. A study conducted at the UK’s University of Hertfordshire and published in a 2007 edition of Developmental Science found that kids performed better during naming tests when they gestured. Kids who weren’t allowed to gesture didn’t do as well, leading researchers to conclude that the physical movement improved recognition and speech production.
Researchers at the University of Central Florida’s Department of Psychology found a similar connection in their 2009 study involving boys between the ages of eight and twelve. They asked the twenty-three participants—twelve of whom were diagnosed with ADHD—to take working-memory tests while the researchers monitored their movements. Everyone fidgeted during the test taking, but researchers noted that the boys diagnosed with ADHD moved around significantly more than the “typically developing” ones. However, when the kids were asked to watch a movie or paint a picture, they all remained still, suggesting that the fidgeting had more to do with cognitive effort than with simply being distracted.
Because memory tests necessitate concentration, which ADHD individuals already struggle with, the researchers theorized that moving gives their brains the extra stimulation they need to perform. And since every kid tested fidgeted at least a little, that tendency isn’t limited to people with attention issues, which is what the aforementioned 2007 study indicates as well. Sometimes our brains need more arousal than usual when a task at hand is particularly taxing. Past evidence has shown that doodling, a habit not unlike fidgeting (especially when it comes to earning teachers’ ire), can improve memory, too.
We Like to Move It Move It
Fidgeting’s more than just a potential learning tool; it’s also a potential reason why some people are less prone to weight gain. Endocrinologist James Levine, MD, and his fellow Mayo Clinic researchers conducted a study in 1999 about the effects of non–exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), the caloric expenditures of daily activities like carrying groceries, cleaning, and fidgeting. They had participants eat an extra one thousand calories every day for two weeks to see whether the excess was burned or turned into fat as a result of NEAT. (They weren’t allowed to engage in any more exercise than that.) Everyone gained weight, but those who moved around more in the two-week period put on less weight by as much as fourteen pounds.
So what causes this restlessness in people? There’s no definite answer yet, but our rodent friends might help us find one eventually. A 2006 American Physiological Society study used rats to figure out the difference between naturally active people and couch potatoes. They specifically bred thin and obese rats, gave them the same amount of food, and tracked their actions. The thin rats tended to move more than their obese peers, a pattern the researchers traced to an increased sensitivity to orexin A, a brain chemical associated with appetite and physical activity stimulation. When they injected the chemical directly into each rat’s hypothalamus (the brain’s control center), the thin ones were noticeably more active, whereas the obese rats didn’t show any difference.
A different study, this one taking place at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in 2007, also linked obese animals with cerebral activity. Mice were bred without a certain gene and put in a controlled-diet environment with other mice. The ones lacking the gene had two times more body fat than the rest by the time they were three months old, despite the fact that all of them ate the same amount. The weight gain was caused by their lethargy: they crossed the infrared beams running through the cages only five hundred times per day, whereas the regular mice crossed them five thousand times. The evidence in both of these studies points not only toward a biological basis for fidgeting, but also toward an answer regarding why people can eat the same things but have different body compositions. Some are just naturally inclined toward physical activity, while others are naturally inclined toward the couch.
Knowing When to Stop
Restlessness can have positive mental and physical effects, but socially, it’s still taken to mean that someone is anxious and/or undisciplined. But perhaps society will become more lenient about fidgeting, the more we learn about its advantages. Some schools are already heading in that direction, allowing students to shift around while they work and keep objects on their desks, like stress balls, to play with when they feel the need. Offices that use treadmill desks have shown increased productivity among workers, not to mention decreased waistlines. But while fidgeting is clearly beneficial in some ways, there’s also a time and a place for it—neither of which is in job interviews or any situation in which we’re trying to impress others. You’ll look neurotic and bored, even if you try to explain the obese-rat study—so curb the leg bouncing and finger fiddling until you get the job—or the second date.