Is too much sitting bad for your brain?

  • The link between physical activity and improved cardiovascular and metabolic health is well-documented
  • But the connection between different levels of physical activity and cognitive health is not as well understood
  • In fact, a new study suggests that a certain amount of sedentary behaviour isn't actually that bad

We're constantly hearing and reading that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for our health – physical and mental – and that we need to stop being couch potatoes and get more exercise.

There are even products on the market to get people with desk jobs onto their feet – from sit-stand desks to treadmill desks.

And in the case of older people, getting enough exercise is considered crucial for optimal brain function and keeping dementia at bay. 

Now, a new study is suggesting otherwise.

The study, conducted by the Colorado State University, suggests that a certain amount of sedentary behaviour isn’t actually that bad, but only if basic physical activity benchmarks continue to be met.

Speed, memory and reasoning

The research, led by Assistant Professor Aga Burzynska, investigated the link between sensor-measured physical activity and cognitive performance in 228 healthy, older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

Results show that those who continued to engage in physical activity continued to have “better processing speed, memory and reasoning abilities”, but those who were more sedentary were better at “reasoning tasks and vocabulary”.

The study was published in the journal of the American Psychological Association, Psychology and Aging.

Cognitive outcomes

Burzynska noted that the association between increased physical activity and improved cardiovascular and metabolic health is well-documented. But the link between different intensities of daily physical activity and cognitive health is not as well understood.

“We know that as we grow older, even if we do not have any cognitive impairments, people aged 60 and up already show some decreased speed, executive functioning, and memory. Those decreases are totally within a normal range, but this study was looking to understand how our behaviours and habits may correlate with cognitive outcomes in older age,” Burzynska said in a university news report.

Further study needed

Even though those who don’t do much exercise aren’t completely doomed with regards to their brain functionality, researchers maintain more research is needed on the subject.

Further study is needed to “determine how exactly the participants spent their time sitting before any definitive conclusions can be made about sedentary activity and cognitive health”.

Burzynska added that while the study shows that regular exercise is good for both physical and mental health, those who do not have the option to be physically active could engage in “cognitively demanding activities”.

“I don’t think I would in any way suggest that we should engage in more sitting, but I think trying to be as physically active as possible and making sure that you get stimulated in your sedentary time – that it’s not just spent staring at the TV – that this combination might be the best way to take care of your brain,” she said.

READ | 'Mommy brain' isn't permanent, new study shows

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READ | Why every minute of exercise counts towards you living a longer life

Image credit: Cottonbro, Pexels
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