I was reading the post The Monitored Man in the New York Times the other day, in which writer Albert Sun discussed the different activity trackers he’s been testing out, and I noticed this interesting tidbit:
But even the best tracker can’t recognize all of your movements. As I sit writing this, my wrists are motionless, but my leg is tapping to music. My activity trackers don’t seem to notice — fidgeting won’t be reflected in the calorie counts they show me. That’s too bad, because there’s an interesting body of research suggesting that a propensity to fidget is one reason lean people stay lean.
Intrigued, I clicked on the link about lean people staying lean, which talked about a study conducted by Dr. James Levine in which it was discovered lean people had a tendency to fidget and pace around, and this might be what keeps them lean. What really interested me? This fidgeting and pacing has the potential to burn about 350 calories per day, without trips to the gym!
I Googled around a bit, and discovered fidgeting and pacing are known as NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis: “the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting.”
This was getting more and more interesting.
Until about five years ago, I was one of those people who could eat whatever they wanted and not gain an ounce. In fact, some of my most painful years in adolescence revolved around the whole issue of being too skinny and not being able to gain weight.
When I started gaining weight five years ago, I felt quite cheerful about it. For one thing, clothes shopping became much more pleasurable; clothes actually fit me, and I could stop frequenting the teenage-style stores I’d had to resort to before.
It was around that time I stopped fidgeting and pacing. I’d made a concerted effort to stop doing so, although I can’t remember why. I didn’t stop completely – when in the middle of a particularly stressful deadline, you could almost be guaranteed to find me sitting in front of the computer with my right leg jiggling frantically up and down. But most of the time, whenever I sat, I stayed still.
Since then, I’ve gained more weight than my body feels comfortable with. Even when I was really thin, I had some years when I didn’t exercise regularly, during which I felt unfit – I’ve always judged my personal fitness by how much huffing and puffing I do when I take the stairs. With the extra weight, I’ve been failing the huff and puff test consistently.
So I’ve been on the fitness bandwagon on and off the past few years. I try to exercise regularly, but I’m just not one of those people who enjoy exercising very much. When the weather is nice, I walk a lot, and there are about three months of the year when I actually enjoy running outside. The problem is, I don’t like running when it’s too hot. Or too cold. As Goldilocks says, it has to be just right. Unfortunately, living in Toronto, Canada, means there are many months when it’s snowy and icy and about two to three months when it’s heat wave weather. In other words, I’m sedentary a lot more than I want to be.
Apparently, the tendency to fidget and pace is something you’re born with. Since I had been a fidgeter and pacer up until about five years ago, I wondered if I could re-develop the habit and perhaps enhance my fitness levels. Engaging in more NEAT activities won’t take the place of a daily workout, I know, but it seems like something that fits snuggly in the “surely it can’t hurt” category.
So I’ve been trying to be more aware of those times when I’m sitting and sedentary, and reminding myself during those times, “now’s a good time to do some fidgeting.” When I’m sitting on the couch reading, I’ve been doing leg lifts. At the computer, I bounce my legs up and down (I’ve been doing this ever since I sat down to compose this post). I’m planning on trying out a standing desk using some file boxes, and if it turns out I can actually type comfortably on my laptop while standing, I’m going to make this standing desk IKEA hack.
Have fidgeting and pacing come back naturally to me? Before today, I would have given you a cautious, “yes, I think so.” But something today cinched it for me. My sister called me on the phone, and I talked to her for an hour and forty-five minutes (you’ve had those kinds of calls, right?). It wasn’t until a few hours later that I realized, I’d been pacing back and forth during the entire conversation.
It made me wish I had a Fitbit or some other activity tracker to give me credit for all those steps!
I found more ideas for incorporating NEAT exercises into your every day life here. I especially like the idea of doing strength-training exercises while you’re sitting – as a reader, I do a lot of sitting when I’m reading. Who knew that raising your heels while seated works out the muscles in the lower leg?!
I’m not sure whether my fidgeting fitness plan will have any particularly noticeable effects. But fidgeting is something I do naturally, so why not put it to good use, right?