In Praise of Fidgeting


I have often sung the praises of taking advice from our elders. Eat your vegetables – that turned out to be a good tip, proven by scientific studies to make you live longer.

Get some fresh air. Go for a walk, preferably amongst greenery. Those are other oft-heard suggestions from parents and grandparents. Now this counsel has been validated by research. Walks in natural surroundings have been shown to not only enhance your life experience, but to decrease mortality.

As much as I value elder counsel, I also believe it is incumbent upon me to speak up when any such time-worn advice turns out to be wrong. Sorry Granny and Gramps, Gogo and Mkhulu, Oupa and Ouma – or whatever you call your parents’ parents. There is something that the older generations often told us that now, it emerges from a new study, is incorrect.

US President Barack Obama in his youth with his grandfather and grandmother

A young Barack Obama with his granny and gramps – wonder if they offered him advice back then? (Photo: DPA)

“Stop fidgeting!” I heard that a lot as a kid. Although I cannot recall experiencing any direct benefits from following this advice. Ceasing to move did not make me feel or perform any better. I only felt more hemmed in as I tried to stay motionless. Yet I was continually ordered at home and school to “Sit still!”

This is the kind of bad rap that fidgeting has usually had:

“Fidgeting is a clear sign of nervousness. A man who can’t keep still is a man who is worried, tense and certainly not confident. Your hands can be your worst enemies — fight to keep them still and steady. You can definitely talk with your hands, but keep your gesticulations calm and under control. Also, when seated, avoid that rapid leg-vibration thing that some guys do (you don’t want to look like a dog getting his belly rubbed).”

“10 Ways to Show Confidence With Body Language”

A new study puts the lie to this view of fidgeting. It now emerges that fidgeting offers significant health benefits. Fidgeting has been shown to protect you against the ill effects of too much sitting. Which may not just make you ill but can kill you. As My New Old Self recently strongly advised, citing ample research, you are less likely to die early if you stand more.

I’m liking the take-out message here. No need to do more exercise. Just do less sitting. And more standing. While fidgeting. And feel free to fidget even more.

Just in case you’re not taking me seriously, let me put it to you this way. Researchers studied the fidgeting habits – or lack thereof – of a sample of 12,000 UK women. Inevitably some of them died during the years of this study. Those were the quiet, non-fidgety ones. Apparently the fidgetiest women are alive and well.

There is an aging angle here. If you have fidgeted your whole life then keep it up, for this may well have contributed to your longevity so far.

Baby fidgeting with seat belt

Fidgeting can start in babyhood and continue through old age (Photo: Christian Haugen via Flickr)

If you don’t fidget much, try adding some “incidental physical activity“, as the researchers call it, to your daily regime. It can’t hurt and may just help both your physical and mental health.

“Even if it doesn’t help your physical health, fidgeting might be good for your mental well-being: Many researchers believe that these squirms are humanity’s way of dealing with a transition from super-active lifestyles to modernity’s relative laziness. Without tapping our toes, many of us would have more nervous energy than we could handle.”

– “The new micro exercise? Fidgeting: annoying to co-workers, good for you”, National Post

Moreover, this new tip on how to live longer requires no purchase, no special gear or equipment. Fidgeting can be done on your own, in the comfort of your own home, anywhere, any time.

So here are My New Old Self’s Suggestions for Constructive Fidgeting to Extend Your Lifespan:

  1. Tapping, shaking – or perhaps the Senior Fidgeter’s approach, wobbling – these are all recommended forms of fidgeting. Maybe not in public, more like when you’re alone in the kitchen. Or while you’re on the phone. Whenever it happens, just go with it.
  1. Here are some forms of fidgeting you can do while seated, at a desk or in a comfy chair. Rotate your wrists and ankles. Lift your heels, then your toes, up and down. Wiggle your fingers. Making small active movements unconsciously is even better. This isn’t supposed to be a exercise routine but a default approach to combat our life-threatening sedentary lifestyle.
  1. Fool around with your fingers when you’re at a desk or a table. Make like you’re playing piano, or typing. Do some drumming or fluttering. This kind of fidgeting could also help keep ageing joints supple.

    hands fidgeting

    Your hands can do all kinds of fidgeting – and now we know it’s good for you (Photo:

  2. Apparently children who fidget with their hands can think, speak and learn better than those who keep still. Research has shown hand movements to be especially useful when trying to recall a word. Now I’m wondering if older people should do a bit of gesturing and finger-snapping when we’re trying to remember something in one of those tip-of-the-tongue moments.

“There is something called the cognitive load hypothesis, suggesting that when we have to deal with complex thoughts or problems we offload some of the cognitive load into movement, thus freeing up resources to devote to the mental process.”

– Psychology Professor Karen Pine, University of Hertfordshire, UK

Let me return to the anti-fidgeting view that originally fuelled those warnings from elders to keep still. Apparently it can be annoying for non-fidgeters to be seated behind fidgeters in buses, planes, classrooms and cinemas. For details, Google “I can’t stand fidgety people”.

“I fidget too, clicky pens being my favorite, but I know that drives my SO crazy, so I have two small collections of figety things on my desk. One collection for when I’m the only person in the room (clicky pens, a snappy plastic thing etc.) and one collection of quiet things for when others are around, perhaps he could try something like that?

You could console yourself that he may be keeping himself in better shape than if he didn’t fidget.”

“I married a fidgeter – Help me live with it”

“I must pay more attention to the people around me, to see if they feel irritated by my fidgeting. If I don’t like them, I’ll crank it up.”

Comment, Guardian UK

Let me conclude with a word of advice to non-fidgeters. Despite this revelation of fidgeting’s proven health benefits, you still prefer immobility to squirming? Then embrace your stillness. Learn to accept what you cannot change. Next time you spot a tremouring leg or wiggling finger, take a deep breath and quietly look the other way.


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