Op-ed: Fidgeting.

2 February 2006

[I first published this slight piece on the Commentary page of the Austin American-Statesman on February 1, 2005.]

Come to find out, I am a fidgeter.

A Mayo Clinic study released last week shows that some people seem predisposed to move around much more than others — all the time. They shift in their chairs. They tap their toes as they work or watch television. They get up and pace around their desks when they are thinking. In short, they fidget.

They also do not put on extra weight, even without any regular exercise regimen. This might explain why I am three pounds lighter than when I finished college 10 years ago. Back then, I jogged regularly and walked all the time, including half a mile back and forth from my house to campus. Now, I live at my desk, I seldom get out to run or bike, and I take the car everywhere.

But if the Mayo study is right, all my nonstop foot-shuffling and posture-readjusting and standing-up-for-no-good-reason burns 300 to 400 calories per day. Put another way, that is up to 35 pounds per year that I don’t gain.

Should I gloat? I don’t think so. From what the researchers could tell, the tendency to fidget or not is inborn. They found that the obese people in their study were remarkably efficient in their movements, with not a calorie wasted on extraneous effort. This matches my own experience.

Several years ago, I worked for a delightful woman, quite thickset, who did her work at the computer with the daintiest possible motions. In my mind’s eye I see her moving her fingers from keyboard to mouse and back again with the elegance of a concert pianist. When she talked with you, she looked right at you and kept her hands folded on her lap.

When I talk, I have a hard time looking at anything for more than about five seconds at a time. My hands fly all over the place, drawing pictures and carving punctuation (“” and ! and ?) in the air.

My friends sometimes joke about how much I talk with my hands, but to my knowledge no one has ever called me hyperactive. While I am sure I do not suffer from a clinical condition such as ADHD, I do have a fairly short attention span, which I credit for my penchant to wriggle at my desk and walk away from it as often as I can. Come to think of it, I know at least one other person whose byline sometimes appears in this newspaper who has described himself as having a short attention span, and who remains rail-thin in middle age. Maybe this is a blessing that comes from being easily bored.

It is likely that my genes rather than my mindset are the origin of my fidgety behavior, but the knowledge that fidgeting fights obesity fits with a pet idea I have about pursuing goals through small increments. Maybe because of my short attention span, I often shy away from a project when it looks like a mountain of work. But baby steps are my forte: if I can break up an objective into tiny parts that will succumb to constant, low-intensity effort, I will get the job done. This reminds me of Rocky Marciano, who defended his heavyweight title against several larger opponents with an assault of countless small jabs, round upon round, to set up the knockout blow.

Natural non-fidgeters like my former boss probably cannot start wriggling in their chairs by force of will. But the findings of the Mayo Clinic report do support the idea that we can all do small things, hour by hour, to break our sedentary habits. Park your car at the back of the lot and walk an extra 50 yards. Take standup stretch breaks at your desk every 30 minutes. If, like me, you keep a water bottle at your desk, get a smaller one so that you have to make more frequent trips to refill it. (And drink more water, period: it’s good for you, and it will force you to make more short trips of another kind.)

“Forget” to take the remote control to your easy chair so that you have to get up to change the channel. When you come to a break in the action, whether a brief stopping point in your work or a commercial on television, get up and walk around the room.

But whatever you do, don’t just sit there — fidget!

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