Previous research has linked long stretches of sedentary time – whether facing a computer or watching TV – with poor health outcomes even in people who get plenty of exercise, the researchers note in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
But in the new study, among women who sat around for five to six hours a day, heavy fidgeting was linked to a significantly lower mortality risk over the study period than staying perfectly still in their chairs.
Read: Sedentary behaviour a risk for health problems
Janet Cade of the University of Leeds, U.K., and her colleagues analysed survey data from more than 12,000 women about their lifestyles, including how much time they typically spent sitting, how much they fidgeted, whether they exercised and what they ate and drank. Over the course of about 12 years, on average, the low-fidgeters who were sedentary for at least seven hours a day had a 30 percent higher risk of death compared to those who sat for no more than five hours a day.
But among women who fidgeted the most, sitting for five to six hours a day had a 33 percent lower risk of death during the study than being sedentary for less than five hours a day.
"If you have to sit for long periods of time even small movements such as fidgeting could be helpful," Cade said by email.
She and her team analysed survey data collected from 1999 to 2002 when the women were typically in their mid-50s.
About 42 percent of the women reported sitting for less than four hours daily, 32 percent said they were sedentary for five to six hours and another 26 percent spent seven to 17 hours a day sitting down.
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Overall, about 54 percent described themselves as not very fidgety, 20 percent said they fidgeted occasionally and about 27 reported a strong impulse to fidget most of the time.
The self-proclaimed habitual fidgeters got significantly more exercise and sleep then their calmer peers, but they also appeared less likely to eat fruits and vegetables and more prone to drinking and smoking.
One shortcoming of the study is its reliance on the women to accurately report how much time they spent fidgeting and sitting, the authors acknowledge. They also didn't account for the women's weight.
It's also possible that although the study accounted for exercise, the data may not have painted a complete picture of whether or not women were constantly in motion as they went about their daily lives, noted Robert Newton, Jr., an exercise expert at the Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Read: Fidgeting your way to fitness
"We currently do not know how vigorously people need to fidget to get a potential benefit," Newton, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.
Fidgetiness may also be a marker of a person who is hard-wired to move around a lot, said Dr James Levine, a researcher at Arizona State University and the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.
"The fidget itself is actually a reflection of the brain sending out a signal to get moving," said Levine, who wasn't involved in the study. "If you can get out and walk around you do that, but if you are stuck behind a desk with a pile of work to do then you just make all the little movements you can.
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