GOT kids in your life? Chances are you’re familiar with pop-its, fidget spinners and squishy toys.
Demand for these items has created an enormous boom in the fidget toy industry, with some retailers experiencing shortages in the run-up to Christmas – not to mention the headaches the toys cause for teachers.
But could a potentially annoying habit for some be a lifesaver for others? A 2015 study from the University of Leeds found that fidgeting helps offset the dangers of too much desk time – the increased risk of death caused by sitting down for long periods was only found in people who rarely fidget.
In other words, wiggling, shuffling and playing with whatever you have to hand on your desk could help to counterbalance the health risks of sitting down all day.
Plus, it could improve concentration, burn extra calories and have anxiety-banishing benefits, too. You heard it here first: fidgeting is no longer just for kids.
Brilliant for brains
“If you try to suppress the urge to fidget, you won’t get the best out of your brain’s processing power,” warns Jo. “If we don’t allow fidgeting, it can lead to ‘overspill’, when the need to satisfy that urge grows and takes over other thoughts.” In other words, fidgeting is likely to become a distraction when you ignore those innate desires.
The good news is that once you embrace that urge to squeeze a stress ball or tap your feet, you open up a world of possible benefits. As well as helping you to focus, there’s evidence that doing something mindless could invigorate your memory of a task, as seen in a University of Plymouth study that had participants doodling while listening to a dull phone message. It was found that they were able to remember almost a third more information as a result. It could improve your mental health, too. “For many people, fidgeting lets their thoughts focus,” says Jo. “If they are stopped from doing so, it can make them anxious, sending a response to the stress and emotion centres of the brain. Our ability to concentrate is highly linked to emotional regulation.” So more fidgeting equals less anxiety.
Why can’t we just sit still?
If you’re a chronic squirmer, you’ve probably been told it’s a bad habit. But the urge to keep moving is actually deep-rooted. “It’s an innate neurological need embedded into us to help us focus,” says Jo McMeechan, a paediatric physiotherapist who specialises in neurology.
“For many people, fidgeting helps them to take in, process and respond to information or instructions. It stops those moments of zoning out where you hear what someone says but don’t actually take it in.”
Fit as a fiddle
On top of the benefits to your brain, there’s some evidence that being a fidget could help keep you in shape, too. Research in the US that encouraged participants
to overeat and do minimal exercise over a two-month period found that the biggest factor in discovering who would gain fat and who would be unaffected was how much people fidgeted and changed their posture.
This behaviour is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), and those who practised it the most gained the least weight, with around a third of their excess calories burned off this way.**
Plus, on top of the additional calorie burn, “incidental” physical activities (such as getting up to make a tea) can make you fitter. Canadian scientists found that an extra 30 minutes of this type of movement in the day – the more intense the better – caused a notable improvement to cardiovascular fitness.***
While structured fidgeting can help many people to process information, there are certain groups who stand to benefit even more. It’s been shown to help children with
ADHD in particular, with one study showing that participants aged 8-12 performed better on memory tests when they moved around more.† It’s also anecdotally reported that fidget toys, such as specially made woollen mittens with bobbles sewn in, can alleviate stress for some people living with dementia — though it requires careful consideration first.
“Before introducing a fidget toy to a person with dementia, consider whether there is an underlying cause for their fidgeting, such as any discomfort or pain,” says Kerry Lyons, consultant admiral nurse at Dementia UK.
“It’s also worthwhile to assess how appropriate a fidget toy is for the person diagnosed. A specialist dementia nurse can talk through these options with you.”
The distraction of squeezing a stress ball reduced pain by 22% and anxiety by 18% for patients undergoing varicose vein surgery.*
Toys are not just for kids
Those who like to fidget with their hands should spend time working out the textures they prefer to touch. A small beanbag toy, such as a super-soft Cats Vs Pickles plushie, £4.99, Smyths Toys, will fit satisfyingly in your palm.
For items with moving parts or all the satisfaction of popping bubble wrap, try a Push Popper Fidget Spinner, £3, Findmeagift.co.uk.If you’re a leg jiggler, Jo recommends tying a resistance band around your chair legs to bounce your legs against. Or use a wobble cushion, such as the JLL inflatable version, £13.99.
It’s all well and good messing around with whatever’s to hand when you’re alone, but when you’re not WFH, it may be time to adapt your habits. “Try to find ways to fulfil your needs that are less annoying for other people,” says Jo.
For example, instead of tapping your pen, aim for more subtle and quieter items, such as jewellery, hair bands or Blu-Tack, which are easier to get away with on the DL. For fidget-free environments such as a job interview,
Jo recommends having a brisk walk or listening to something on your headphones before you go in to quell anxiety.
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