Fidget for your fitness

The first time I heard the term "medicating lifestyle," it was used by a friend who was contemplating whether to take prescription medications for a condition that could be addressed less expensively with changes in his lifestyle.

In my friend's case, instead of accepting without discussion his doctor's recommendation that he take medications for high blood pressure, he asked whether he could make some lifestyle changes that would allow him to take fewer medications — or none.

The answer was yes.

He stopped drinking wine and started eating less sodium-rich food. He rejected his much-beloved olives altogether when he realized there is a whopping 60 milligrams of sodium in just one olive.

He also lost weight — it only takes a 10 percent weight loss to make a notable difference in blood pressure and, in fact, in health overall.

My friend also opted to get more exercise. For some people that's the hardest part of healthy aging. I've been thinking about that problem and I wonder whether there's any way to incorporate information I recently read about from a group of Canadian researchers.

According to the research, published in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, people who "fidget," i.e. move about restlessly on a regular basis, have better cardio-respiratory fitness. They also, reportedly, have a healthier weight and find it harder to put on weight.

By "fidgeting," they're referring to things like leg bobbing, finger tapping and thumb twiddling. (Just as an aside, experts tell me pen spinning is a "highly advanced and skillful form of fidgeting.")

Fidgeting can be called "incidental activity" or "spontaneous physical activity." In the studies, "the subjects who burned the most calories were restless, paced, played cards and generally spent less time sitting or lying in bed than those who burned the fewest calories."

Perhaps you're saying, "That's intuitive — if you move a little more, you obviously burn a few more calories."

But one study indicated the caloric difference can be as much as 2,300 calories in a 24-hour time period. That's equivalent to 38 olives. Or, better put, "a salmon dinner (for two) with rice pilaf, a leafy green salad with your favorite dressing, mixed spring vegetables and sourdough bread with real butter. In fact, maybe you could even have a few olives on your salad. I suspect you're fidgeting a little just thinking about how yummy a dinner like that might taste.

I've talked about the benefits of fidgeting with my friends throughout this week. They were all quite excited that hand and leg movements done in small, repetitive and spontaneous ways could promote increased fitness. Do you think thumb twiddling might go viral?

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.

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