The list of things that could supposedly shave years off your life has become so extensive that you wonder how anyone manages it past 60. Among these endless culprits is inactivity, with multiple studies showing how a sedentary lifestyle is a significant risk factor for an early grave and a worrying number of ailments, like heart disease and diabetes. Haul that booty out of the chair has been the take-home message, because even the gym can’t cancel out the effects of sitting for hours.
But never fear, science is always here. A new study failed to observe a higher risk of death from prolonged sitting in those who fidget a lot. Yes, fidgety behavior is really annoying to non-fidgeters, but maybe think twice before slapping someone on the thigh for tapping their feet.
Although correlation studies often leave one eyebrow raised, to the researchers’ credit it did involve almost 13,000 female participants. These women ranged in age from 37 to 78 and were part of the United Kingdom Women’s Cohort study. Alongside gathering information on a range of possible confounding factors – like exercise, diet, alcohol consumption and smoking habits – the women reported average time spent sitting per day and their fidgetiness.
What exactly constitutes a fidget is of course pretty arbitrary, and the way they measured this behavior was not the most robust method. Women were asked, on a scale from 1 to 10, to indicate how much they tend to fidget, with 1 being not at all and 10 all the time. But short of strapping motion sensors to thousands of women, this was always going to be pretty difficult to quantify. Still, the team from the University of Leeds and University College London used this information to categorize them as low, middle or high fidgeters.
The participants were then followed for an average of 12 years, during which time deaths were recorded to estimate mortality risk from all causes. As described in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, once again they found a relationship between time spent sitting and risk of death. But if you add fidgeting into the equation, then the association seems to be modified.
Among those who did not consider themselves to be fidgeters, the link between prolonged sitting and mortality risk was present, but not in those who were classed in the medium or high fidgeting groups. This, the researchers write, suggests that fidgeting removes the association between the two variables, although precisely why this is remains unknown and out of the realm of this study.
"Our study wasn't able to go into potential mechanisms," lead researcher Janet Cade told IFLScience. "But sedentary behavior affects whole body energy expenditure, reducing it overall but probably also increasing energy intake because we might also be snacking.
We don't know what it is about fidgeting that might offset some of those possibly abnormal effects, but it's possible that just small amounts of movement, fidgets, might just offset that adverse metabolism."
Aside from the limitations of self-reporting, this study also falls short because it only included women, albeit a large number. Repeats involving men should be conducted before people start generalizing the results. They also didn’t distinguish between sitting locations, for example on a sofa at home or in a chair at work, which they acknowledge is a drawback because, for example, sitting watching TV is associated with other behaviors, like drinking booze.
That being said, raising awareness that any movement during long periods of sitting is a good thing to do could be beneficial to the general population, especially since the average person spends at least half of their waking day sedentary.