New research shows that toe tapping might help to counteract the deleterious heart effects of sedentary behavior.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated August 15, 2016
Credit: Getty Images

If you have to sit, keep your feet moving: That’s the conclusion from a study published last week in the American Journal of Physiology Heart and Circulatory Physiology. Toe-tapping and fidgeting can increase blood flow to the legs, say researchers, and may even help to prevent cardiovascular disease.

It’s long been known that prolonged sedentary behavior—on an airplane, behind a desk at work, or on the couch during a Netflix binge—can slow down blood flow in the lower body. That, in turn, can raise a person’s risk for dangerous blood clots and artery disease.

So Jaume Padilla, Ph.D., an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, wanted to know if a small amount of leg movement could help prevent this problem. He and his colleagues compared blood-vessel function in the legs of 11 healthy adults, before and after three hours of sitting.

During those three hours, the volunteers were asked to tap one foot for 60 seconds, then rest it for four minutes. (They averaged about 250 movements per minute.) Their other leg stayed still throughout. When the researchers measured blood flow through the popliteal—an artery in the lower leg—in both legs, they found that blood flow had decreased in the stationary leg, but had actually increased in the fidgeting one.

“While we expected fidgeting to increase blood flow to the lower limbs, we were quite surprised to find this would be sufficient to prevent a decline in arterial function,” said Padilla in a press release.

This isn’t the first time fidgeting has been given points for potential health benefits: In 2005, Mayo Clinic researchers found that lean people tend to have more trouble sitting still than overweight people, and are more likely to pace around and fidget throughout the day. Those tiny movements translated into a difference of about 350 calories a day. And earlier this year, British researchers found that fidgeting seems to cancel out the increased risk of death that comes with sitting for long periods of time.

This new study does, however, seem to be the first to suggest that the habit could be linked specifically to better heart health. (More research is needed, they acknowledge, to know whether it could provide long-term vascular benefits versus just immediate improvements.)

Of course, Padilla recommends fidgeting both legs to get the most benefit, not just tapping one foot as his volunteers did. And he stresses that fidgeting while sitting can never take the place of real exercise—for calorie burn or cardiovascular benefits.

“You should attempt to break up sitting time as much as possible by standing or walking," he says. "But if you’re stuck in a situation in which walking just isn’t an option, fidgeting can be a good alternative. Any movement is better than no movement.”

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