Huffpost Parents

Why Do We Fidget?

Posted: Updated:

Welcome to Ask Healthy Living -- in which you submit your most burning health questions and we do our best to ask the experts and get back to you. Have a question? Get in touch here and you could appear on Healthy Living!

"Ask Healthy Living" is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical advice.

Is there a biological reason why people fidget?

"Stop fidgeting," said every parent ever. But should you really?

Several studies reveal that fidgeting actually has some benefits. But what compels people to twitch and tap, seemingly without control over their movement, in situations when they are called on to be still? Turns out, there is at least one biological explanation.

The same brain areas are involved in both movement and speech, explains Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire who researches gesturing. So it isn't surprising that gestures are involved in preparing our thoughts for speech. "We move the hands more when we are trying to find a word during a tip-of-the-tongue moment," she says.

Indeed, in a study of schoolchildren between the ages of six and eight, Pine and colleagues found that kids who were able to move their hands during a lesson were more likely to get the correct answer.

But other neurological theories abound. "There is also 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," Pine tells HuffPost Healthy Living. "While I cannot say this is a conclusive explanation for fidgeting, these findings do suggest that it may be linked to the way in which an individual processes their thoughts and speech."

Aside from cognitive advantages, there's some evidence that fidgeters have faster metabolisms -- and thus lower BMIs -- than their peers with sitzfleisch. In a Mayo Clinic study of both thin and overweight self-described "couch potatoes," researchers found that fidgeting in the midst of a day of lollygagging actually burned an additional 350 calories.

And in separate research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, fidgeting and other daily movement -- or “incidental physical activity," as the researchers called it -- can actually help maintain fitness levels, as measured by VO2 max. Reported Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times:

They weren’t exercising. They may have been hurrying to catch the bus during the occasional, brief moderate-intensity spurt, but even that was enough, it seems, to bump up VO2 max and, potentially, reduce risks of health problems.

Viewed this way, non-fidgeters might take a page from their jumpy brethren and get moving.

Have a question? Ask Healthy Living!

Earlier on HuffPost:

Previously On Ask Healthy Living
Share this
Current Slide

Suggest a correction