Does Fidgeting Help Burn Calories?

Author: Richard Weil, MEd, CDE
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Exercise scientists have been studying fidgeting for more than 20 years. You've seen people fidget. They're the restless ones who can't sit still. They wiggle in their chairs, pace while waiting for a bus, and twist and fiddle while standing on line. Claude Bouchard is a scientist who studies the genetics of fitness and fidgeting. In his research, he has discovered that some individuals move more than others and that the tendency toward extra movement is determined by genetics. He has even found that fraternal twins (nonidentical) don't move the same amount. His conclusion is that some individuals are programmed to move more than others.

James Levine, MD, is a physician who studies physical activity and fidgeting. Dr. Levine has confirmed that heavy people sit more than lean people. In one study, he found that obese individuals sat nine and a half hours per day compared with lean individuals who sat less than seven hours per day. One must ask the chicken or egg question; that is, do obese individuals move less than lean individuals because they are heavier, or are they heavier because they move less? Many scientists believe it is some combination of both, and most agree that some people are genetically programmed to spontaneously move more than others. Just keep your eyes open and observe movement patterns of people all around you (including your own!). You'll soon see that some people do indeed move spontaneously more than others.

Does fidgeting really make a difference in how many calories you burn?

In an important study in 1986 by Eric Ravussin, 177 subjects stayed, one at a time, for 24 hours inside a special 10 x 12-foot respiratory chamber that measures all the calories you burn while you are in the chamber. The subjects in the study slept, ate, exercised on a stationary bike, and were allowed to move around in the chamber as much as they liked. Despite the fact that all of the subjects spent the same amount of time in exactly the same confined space, the results showed large differences in the number of calories they burned. Some subjects burned as few as 1,300 calories in 24 hours, while others burned as much as 3,600 calories, a difference of 2,300 calories in one 24-hour period! The scientists concluded that, even when they adjusted for differences in muscle mass, the only explanation could be the amount the subjects fidgeted (sometimes called spontaneous physical activity). They based their conclusions on the fact that the subjects who burned the most calories were restless, paced, played cards, and generally spent less time sitting or lying in bed while those who burned the fewest calories spent the majority of their time sitting, watching TV, and napping. In general, men burned more calories than women, not only because they weighed more and had more muscle but because they fidgeted more.

In a similar study, identical twins were confined to a college dormitory for 100 days. The food they ate was carefully measured for caloric intake, and they exercised by being taken out for the same walks. On 80 of the days, everyone was overfed by 1,000 calories to induce them all to gain weight. They all did gain weight, and theoretically, since they all were fed the same number of excess calories and did the same amount of exercise, it would be expected that they would all gain the same amount of weight. But they didn't. The weight gain ranged from 9.5 to 29 pounds. The researchers concluded that the subjects who gained the least amount of weight fidgeted more, plus there may have been other genetic factors involved in how they store fat.

One of the most interesting studies of fidgeting and the calorie-burning benefits of seemingly trivial amounts of physical activity was conducted by Dr. Lanningham and Dr. Levine of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. They had subjects wear special devices that measured calorie expenditure while they performed daily chores with washing machines, dishwashers, and cars, and then in the same subjects they compared the calories burned while they performed the same tasks manually (washing dishes and clothes by hand and walking or biking for local errands instead of driving). The differences seemed small: using a dishwasher vs. hand washing was a 26-calorie difference (hand washing more); using a washing machine vs. hand washing was 24 calories; and walking vs. driving was 58 calories. The total daily differences between manual and automatic work added up to only 108 calories, but 108 calories burned each day adds up to 39,420 calories in one year (365 days x 108), and since 3,500 calories is equal to 1 pound, burning 108 calories per day is equal to just over 11 pounds in one year if you do it every day (39,420 calories divided by 3,500 calories).