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As long as I can remember, I have been a fidgeter. I often twiddle my fingers, play with my hair, or wiggle my feet. I have always thought this was a bad thing that I had to quit, but research shows that there might be benefits to this restless behaviour.
Fidgeting for focus?
How fidgeting and attention are connected isn’t all that clear yet. On the one hand, we have evidence that fidgeting is linked to lesser focus. For example, persons with ADD often struggle with both hyperactivity and keeping their concentration. Studies have also shown that people who fidgeted more remembered a lecture less and that fidgeting is associated with daydreaming.
On the other hand, research has also shown that fidgeting can be helpful in staying focused. People who were allowed to doodle (mindlessly draw) while listening to a phone conversation were able to better monitor the conversation and remembered more details. And when children with ADD could move around during a task where they had to pay attention to answer questions, they were more likely to be correct. This was not the case for children without ADD. We need more research to find out which is the cause, and which is the result: does distraction cause fidgeting, or does fidgeting cause you to remain more focused? And what causes the differences between people?
Fidgeting to maintain weight
A very different benefit to fidgeting is that it can help you maintain weight. In one study, participants had to eat a thousand more kilocalories than they needed every day. It turned out that the amount of weight they gained could be predicted by how much ‘non-exercise’ they performed. This included walking, daily activities such as washing dishes, but also restless movement such as wiggling your feet. A follow-up study showed that when you make spontaneous movements (e.g., playing with your hair, swaying your legs around), you will quickly use 50% more energy than when you are still! A different study followed nearly 130.000 women (ranging from ages 37 to 80) for 12 years and found that fidgeting can prevent the deadly effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
It should be said that for all of these benefits, further research should be done on whether fidgeting is the cause or if these benefits and fidgeting have a common cause and therefore occur together. Also, who benefits most from fidgeting and under what circumstances? For me, a now proud fidgeter, it is at least good to read some positive qualities of fidgeting. And I am very curious to find out what science is going to teach us about fidgeting in the future.