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You Can’t Sit Still Because You’re Bored and Stressed

The good news: Fidgeting may help your brain (and body) function better

Every office has a few toe-tappers, foot-waggers and/or pen-spinners. I, for one, annoy the hell out of my coworkers with incessant knee-bouncing. What, though, compels only some of us to twitch and tap, while others can remain perfectly still in moments of deep concentration?

It’s complicated, but here are some of the reasons it happens:

Fidgeting Increases Attention

Recent research suggests that fidgeting may occupy parts of your brain that would otherwise distract you with random thoughts. This is convenient, since people who fidget are generally more prone to mind-wandering and daydreaming.

A passage from Fidget to Focus: Outwit Your Boredom — Sensory Strategies for Living with ADD explains why fidgeting helps people maintain focus:

If something we are engaged in is not interesting enough to sustain our focus, the additional sensory-motor input that is mildly stimulating, interesting or entertaining allows our brains to become fully engaged and allows us to sustain focus on the primary activity in which we are participating.

In other words, twiddling that pen round and round makes you look distracted, but it’s actually having the opposite effect. Supporting this, another study found that people who were allowed to doodle while monitoring a phone conversation for details remembered more facts than those who weren’t. Children with ADHD, likewise, do better on cognitive tasks when they’re engaged in spontaneous bodily activity, and a more recent study concludes that fidgeting initiates the human nervous system in much the same way that Ritalin or Adderall does, thus improving overall cognitive performance.

Fidgeting Relieves Stress

Fidgeting might also act as a coping mechanism for stress and intense nervousness. “These are called tension-reduction behaviors,” explains psychotherapist John Tsilimparis. “We perform these acts to mitigate stress and excessive worrying.”

Science backs up his claim: Researchers selected men to perform mental arithmetic out loud in front of strangers, and found that those who reported more anxiety beforehand performed more tension-reduction behaviors. Those who were tapping and twitching during the test also reported that they found the experience less stressful, suggesting that fidgeting reduced their stress levels. (Interestingly enough, fidgeting only helps men, who are twice as likely to perform tension-reduction behaviors as women.)

Fidgeting Improves Health

A 2016 study surprisingly suggests that fidgeting is also good for your health, specifically mitigating the damage caused by sitting for long periods of time (i.e., Netflix binges and long hours at work). An article published in the New York Times explains the most worrying effect of sitting for too long:

“Studies show that uninterrupted sitting causes an abrupt and significant decline in blood flow to the legs. This is problematic since, when blood flow drops, friction along the vessel walls also declines. The cells that line these walls, which can sense changes in the friction, begin to pump out proteins that contribute over time to hardening and narrowing of the arteries.”

But this recent study also found that frequent toe-tapping manages to maintain blood flow to the legs, preventing that hardening and narrowing of the arteries.

So, sorry, desk neighbor, but I think I’ll keep bouncing my knee after all.