Moving more burns more calories.
But that doesn’t mean that “moving” needs to be formal exercise.
Fidgeting can also burn enough calories to make a significant impact on your weight. In this podcast, you’ll learn which kinds of fidgeting will help you burn the most calories.
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**Armi Legge:** Fat loss is about calories in vs. calories out. The logical recommendation is then to eat less and move more. Often, people assume that means you need to do more cardio and go on a very low calorie diet.
Cardio can help you lose fat, but there are many other ways you can increase your energy expenditure besides formal exercise. One method that can be very effective for some people is fidgeting. While you might not think that swinging your legs, tapping your feet, or rocking your knees makes any difference in your body composition, over the course of the day, these small movements can make a big difference in your overall calorie expenditure.
Since you are a data-driven, evidence-based person, you want to know what kinds of fidgeting will help you burn the most calories and that is what you’re going to learn in this podcast.
My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio, the podcast that gives you simple, science-based tips to improve your health, fitness, and productivity. If you like what you hear in today’s show, go to impruvism.com. Enter your email address in the box on the right side of the page and click the button below. After you do, you’ll get free updates from the Impruvism blog delivered to your email inbox when they are published.
We’ve talked about non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, before on the podcast. That is the total number of calories you burn throughout the day from small, mostly unconscious forms of movement like fidgeting.
Technically, NEAT is mostly subconscious while non-exercise physical activity, or NEPA, are the conscious, non-formal kinds of exercise you do during the day, like walking up the stairs or getting your mail from the mailbox. However, there is a lot of overlap between NEAT and NEPA and researchers often use the terms interchangeably.
Your levels of NEAT are mostly set by your genetics. Some people fidget a lot and others don’t. However, you can still control many of your movements throughout the day, which can still have a big impact on your overall calorie burn. To get the most out of your efforts, it’s useful to know how many calories you burn with different kinds of fidgeting.
In 2000, James Levine and his colleagues at the Rochester Mayo Clinic in Minnesota conducted a study to answer that exact question. In study included 17 women and 7 men who weighed anywhere from 48 to 109 kilograms, or 106 to 240 pounds. Ten of these people were normal weight, nine were overweight, and four were obese. The researchers made sure the people hadn’t eaten anything recently before the study or exercised, which helped made sure these variables didn’t affect the results.
The researchers also carefully controlled the room temperature, keeping it at a comfortable level to make sure it didn’t affect the results.
Finally, they also made sure all of the subjects got acquainted with the equipment beforehand to make sure the new environment didn’t have much of an impact on their calorie expenditure.
The actual testing was fairly simple. They used indirect respirometry to measure the subjects’ energy expenditure while they held different postures and performed different kinds of movements. Indirect respirometry is where the measure the gases that the people breathe out and determine how many calories they’re burning.
Here are the different conditions they tested people on.
1. Lying on their backs motionless in a darkened room. This was the control condition.
2. Sitting motionless with legs back and arms supported, like in a La-Z-Boy armchair.
3. Fidgeting while seated. Here are the instructions. “Subjects were informed that they were allowed to move their arms and legs freely while remaining seated.
4. Standing motionless. The researchers told the subjects to “stand with hands at sides, feet six inches apart, and remained relaxed and do not move.”
5. The position of fidgeting while standing. The subjects were instructed they were allowed to move freely and could emulate, at their discretion, activities of daily living.
6. The researchers also tested the subjects’ energy expenditure while walking on a treadmill at one, two, and three miles per hour.
Each subject went through all six of these experiments in this order and here are the results.
While sitting motionless, they burned 3.7% more calories than lying on their backs in the control condition.
While sitting while fidgeting, they burned 54% more calories than the control.
While standing motionless, they burned 13% more calories than the control.
Standing while fidgeting burned 94% more calories than the control.
Walking at 1mph burned 154% more calories than the control.
Walking at 2mph burned 202% more calories than the control.
Finally, walking 3mph burned 292% more calories than the control condition.
To put this in more practical terms, if you were to sit while fidgeting all day, you would burn about 600 more calories than if you sat motionless all day. If you fidgeted while standing all day, you would burn about 950 more calories than if you stood motionless all day. Both of these figures are assuming that you’re sleeping 8 hours per night and are moving around the other 16 hours.
Now, remember you aren’t going to be standing or sitting all day. You’re also going to have times when you are more or less active, so these results aren’t going to be this impressive. However, it still shows that even small movements can make a big impact on your calorie burn over time.
Other studies by the same researchers have also shown that some people can burn close to 1,000 calories per day more than others through NEAT when they overeat.
A few things stand out from these results.
First of all, you burn very few calories just lying on your back. Only about 1.29 per minute, or 77 per hour.
Second, whether you’re sitting or standing, you burn significantly more calories if you fidget.
Third, the number of calories you burn sitting while fidgeting is higher than the number of calories you burn standing motionless. Basically, if you have the choice of standing yet remaining still, or sitting and fidgeting, you will probably burn more calories with the latter.
Fourth, walking burned the most calories and the faster the subjects walked, the more calories they burned.
Before we get too excited about these results, there are a few things we need to remember.
There is a wide variation in how many calories people burned. For some, fidgeting while standing burned almost 200% more calories over baseline. For others, they actually burned more calories while sitting than they did while standing. One person burned the same number of calories standing motionless as they did fidgeting while sitting.
There are probably two reasons for this. Number one is that the movements were self selected. Number two is that the people all weighed very different amounts.
Some people naturally chose to fidget more aggressively, using more of their body and with harder contractions, which made them burn more calories. Heavier people also generally burn more calories with any kind of movement.
Here is how the researchers described the subjects’ choice of fidgeting. “Activities tended to be consistent between subjects and included hand and foot tapping and arm and leg swinging. Most subjects did not move their trunks noticeably. Eight read magazines and three performed hair-grooming gestures and computer work.” The researchers go on to mention that some of the subjects also walked around the laboratory, which would have significantly increased the number of calories they burned even though it technically was classified as just fidgeting.
Activities that more more muscle mass also generally burn more calories, so leg swinging and rapid fidgeting are going to burn more calories than tapping your fingers or grooming your hair.
There was also a significant relationship between the subjects’ body weight and energy expenditure during all standing activities but much less so while sitting. Basically, heavier people burn a lot more calories but this was only significant if they were on their feet. This was especially true while walking.
The researchers’ hypothesis was right. Some kinds of fidgeting burn a lot more calories than others and the more you fidget, the more calories you burn to a point.
Here are my main takeaways from this study:
1. Fidgeting will help you burn significantly more calories, whether you’re lying down, sitting, or standing.
2. If you’re tired of being on your feet, you can still burn a lot of calories fidgeting while sitting.
3. The more you move your body while fidgeting, the more calories you burn. Combing your hair or reading a magazine will barely affect your calorie burn but lightly swinging your legs, strolling around the room, or shaking your knees does burn a lot of energy.
4. As has been the case with other studies, there is a lot of variation in how many calories people burn by fidgeting, so set reasonable expectations. Your mileage may vary.
5. The absolute amount of energy you burn while fidgeting is still small compared to walking and other kinds of more formal exercise, so feel free to use those methods, too.
Here are a few ways to put this information into practice.
When you have the option, stand rather than sit and sit rather than lying down. Pace back and forth between sets at the gym. Use a sit-stand workstation. When you get tired of standing, you can sit and fidget to keep burning calories. When you’re standing at a train stop, outside of a doctor’s office, or anywhere else, tap your feet or shake your legs lightly. It will add up.
It might not seem like it, but small movements like fidgeting can make a big difference in your daily calorie burn. Take advantage of that fact.
Another technique that will help you burn more calories is typing– more specifically, typing a ranking for this podcast on iTunes. To help you practice fidgeting while standing or sitting, go to your computer and go to impruvism.com/itunes or search for “Impruvism Radio” in Google. Once you’re on the iTunes page for this podcast, you can leave a ranking, and after you do, you will have burned probably 3 or 4 more calories. You are welcome.
Thank you for listening, and I will speak to you next week.
1. Levine JA, Schleusner SJ, Jensen MD. Energy expenditure of nonexercise activity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;72(6):1451–1454. Available at: https://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/72/6/1451.long.