Personal Health

10 Supposedly Bad Habits That Turn Out to Be Good for You

Sorry, smoking is still bad for you. But feel free to watch cat videos at work.

Everyone has, at one time or another, been admonished for their bad habits. Childhood is our training ground for trying and developing habits that society has deemed obnoxious, dangerous or annoying. But that has never stopped us from carrying on, try as we might to discard bad behavior. Science, however, has a way of validating the most interesting things, including bad habits. It turns out that some of these habits are actually good for us. 

Here are 10 supposedly bad habits that yield surprising benefits.

1. Fidgeting

As kids, our parents and out teachers told us countless times to stop fidgeting. The inability to sit still is a habit that can drive people around us crazy. In many cases, fidgeting is pathologized, diagnosed as a disorder like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and medicated. But sometimes fidgeting is just fidgeting, an effort to find optimal comfort. As it turns out, fidgeting can actually be a good thing for adults.

It has long been established that being deskbound for long periods of time can have detrimental effects on health, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and even early mortality. Efforts to mitigate these risks are behind the latest office craze, the standing desk. It turns out that, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, being a fidgeter can afford you some of the same benefits as having a standing desk. In the study, women subjects were divided into three groups, low, medium and high-level fidgeters. The study found that medium and high-level fidgeters did not suffer the 30 percent rise in mortality risk that the low-level fidgeters did. As an extra added bonus, fidgeting can burn up to 350 calories a day. So for all those deskbound workers who can’t seem to stop crossing their legs, tapping their toes and drumming their pencils, keep up the good work!

2. Daydreaming

Watching a daydreamer at her desk as she stares off into space can be an amusing experience. Often, the somewhat obnoxious response is to snap your fingers and call her back to Earth. But the common belief that a daydreamer is lazy or procrastinating or just not up to the task she is being asked to do, may not be correct. A study at the University of British Columbia found that the brain is actually quite active when it is daydreaming, particularly in the area associated with complex problem-solving. “When you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal—say reading a book or paying attention in class—but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships,” said Kalina Christoff, the lead author of the study.

3. Sunbathing

The dangers of too much sun are well known, and the incidence of skin cancer has been climbing for many decades. We have all been told to stay out of the sun, slather on the sunscreen, and wear our sun hats and sunglasses. All of this is good advice—to a degree. It turns out that the flip side is that too little sun can result in a deficiency of vitamin D, which increases the risk of osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. Experts are now loosening the “No sun under any circumstances” prescription. In order to assure that the body manufactures enough vitamin D, it is now recommended that we get out in the midday sun for 10 minutes or so every day, sans protection, preferably exposing more than just our face to the rays. It’s not quite a day at the beach, and we are still warned not to allow the skin to turn red, and to cover up afterward, but to those sun demons out there, the door is open just a crack to enjoy some basking.

4. Skipping the shower

One thing that was drummed into our heads growing up was the need to shower every day, to be clean, and to avoid at all cost smelling bad. It is a habit a lot of Americans have taken a little too much to heart. Most of us wouldn’t think of not bathing every day. But it is actually a good thing to skip the shower once or twice a week. Most of us don’t work in the mines or plow the fields anymore. We are not out there getting dirt under our fingernails or digging ditches. Those who do these things can skip this suggestion, but for the rest of us, skipping a shower does wonders for the skin. Soap strips the skin of its natural oils and causes it to dry out. It also washes off a lot of good surface bacteria that helps prevent some skin diseases. If you are worried about smell, you can get by washing your armpits and genital areas with a washcloth at the sink, add a quick spritz of underarm deodorant (we’re not Neanderthals, after all), and you are good to go. While we're at it, your hair does not need to be washed every day either. In fact, your hair will be much healthier if washed only once or twice a week. More than that strips out the oils that give hair its shine and suppleness.

5. Gossiping

Being the subject of cruel gossip is never a good thing—ask any high school girl. Back in the 16th and 17th century in Britain, gossipers were actually punished severely, and made to wear iron cages on their heads. But that was then and this is now. As far as bad habits go, gossiping can actually be healthy, at least for the gossiper. Gossip helps us learn more about ourselves, formulates general lessons that help us navigate the world, and protects us from harmful situations, according to a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“While there are those who love to dismiss gossip, it actually does have a value,” Jodi R.R. Smith, a human resources professional, told NBC’s Today Show. “Gossip tells members of a group what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors are not acceptable. As a new member of a group, such as when you start a new job, listening to what your new co-workers are chatting about can provide you with really valuable information about how to act on your new job.” For women in particular, a University of Michigan study showed that gossiping can release progesterone, a hormone shown to help reduce stress and anxiety.

6. Losing your temper

Constantly throwing temper tantrums is definitely not advisable and is unlikely to win you many friends if you are over the age of 5 (maybe not even then. But it can also be a good thing to have an occasional barnburner of a fit and let out all that pent-up negative feeling. A Swedish study showed that men who failed to express their frustrations and anger to their colleagues in the workplace were two to five times more at risk for a heart attack versus those who expressed themselves. What’s being recommended here is not bullying people, and certainly not scaring them with loud outbursts, but it is healthier to stand up for yourself, even if it means losing your cool. “It’s not good to go away and just leave the conflict if you feel you have been badly treated,” said Constanze Leineweber, lead researcher for the study in Stockholm.

7. Cocktail hour

You can stop thinking of yourself as an alcoholic if you stop by the corner bar after work every day or head to the liquor cabinet when you get home. Unless you are overindulging (i.e. more than two drinks a day), that beer or cocktail is doing you way more good than harm. The ethanol in a cocktail increases your HDL (the good cholesterol), decreases the LDL (the bad stuff), and helps keep the arteries flowing. Your evening constitution helps lowers your risk of heart disease and stroke. As for beer, a Japanese study found that flavonoids in hops increase muscle mass, and the antioxidants in beer can help prevent heart disease. There are caveats: if you are on medication that is affected by alcohol, don’t drink. Likewise if you have a medical condition, like diabetes, that is worsened by alcohol. Stay away from the car if you’ve had a couple, and if you can’t stop at two, see a doctor. Otherwise, bottoms up!

8. Thumbsucking

No. Really. Early thumbsucking is not the disaster many parents were once taught it was. Thumbsucking for the very young serves a positive purpose and only becomes a problem as a child reaches the toddler stage. Continued thumbsucking after the toddler age can lead to orthodontia issues, and no one wants to see adults sucking their thumbs (although bad habits like smoking and overeating are often direct adult substitutes). Children can be seen sucking their thumbs even in the womb. Premature infants who suck their thumbs have, on average, shorter hospital stays, and thumbsucking children are less emotionally dependent than non-thumbsuckers. They play by themselves better and have more self-confidence.

9. Skipping your workout

Let’s face it. You are never going to play in the NBA, and unless you are a professional athlete, working out every single day is not essential. Being active, walking and biking are all important to do every day, but serious workouts at the gym, not so much. In fact, skipping a day between workouts can actually be better for you by allowing your muscles to recover and repair themselves. The repair process is actually what makes them bigger and stronger. So go ahead and veg out occasionally, guilt-free.

10. Watching cat videos online

Can’t resist taking a few minutes at work to watch the latest cute kitty video on Facebook? Don’t worry about it. In fact, your boss should encourage it. Studies have shown that watching cute animal videos online actually enhances productivity at work. After viewing them, we are more focused and careful in performing our work tasks. It seems that cute animals trigger the parts of our brains that control our caregiving instincts, making us focus better on the job at hand. 

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 
 
 
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