Sitting long hours may not be bad for your brain as long as daily exercise goals met, says study
A new study published in Psychology and Aging argues what we think about sitting and cognitive function may be wrong
Leading a sedentary lifestyle is bad for your health and regular exercise is beneficial, these are facts that are very well known across the world in this day and age.
Those who sit at a desk for long hours daily are especially recommended regular movement, stretching and daily moderate to intense physical activity to reduce the risk of obesity and other chronic diseases.
Exercise and cognitive health
Many studies have also linked physical activity with improved cognitive health and lack of exercise with cognitive decline and mental illnesses.
For example, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2018 indicated that physical exercise is a strong gene modulator that induces structural and functional changes in the brain.
These changes not only benefit cognitive function and wellbeing but also form a protective factor against neurodegeneration and associated diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia.
Since this indicates that physical exercise or activity has a positive effect on cognitive function and health, it also inversely suggests that sitting for long periods of time may not be good for health.
But a new study published in Psychology and Aging argues that such a conclusion about sitting and cognitive function may be wrong.
Sedentariness and cognitive function
The study was conducted by researchers at Colorado State University, USA, with the main motive being the need to understand how different intensities of physical activity throughout the day affect cognitive function.
The researchers point out that as people grow older they tend to lead more sedentary lives, especially around the age of 60 years and above.
This may be the reason why they also experience a reduction in speed, executive functioning and memory.
The behaviours that affect activity levels of older adults on a daily basis, however, had not been well captured by studies so far. This, the researchers point out, is because previous studies used questionnaires and other types of self-reporting to collect data.
But when it comes to sedentary behaviour, people are more likely to not notice how many exact hours they have gone without movement - which leads to underreporting of actual sedentary hours.
This is precisely the reason why this study asked all 228 participants, aged 60 to 80 years with normal cognition, to wear scientifically-backed movement sensors on their hip for a span of seven days.
The researchers also conducted more in-depth assessments of cognition with 16 different tasks, using a technique known as the Virginia Cognitive Aging Battery.
Fluid and crystallized cognitive function
The researchers were able to find out how sedentariness and light, moderate or high-intensity activities affected the participants’ two major types of cognitive function.
For those who may not know, fluid cognitive ability (FCA) refers to an individual’s capacity to process and integrate information, act accordingly to solve new problems (instead of old ones that may be a part of your habits) and is related to general intelligence.
Crystallised cognitive ability (CCA) on the other hand is the type that individuals learn or achieve over time, with practice, better knowledge synthesis and experience.
The study discovered that those participants who spent more time daily in moderate to vigorous physical activity had improved markers of FCA like better perceptual speed, memory and reasoning ability.
On the other hand, those participants who spent more time being sedentary had better CCA markers, like having better vocabulary knowledge and improved ability to reason based on prior knowledge. In contrast, the study found that time spent in light physical activity did not improve either FCA or CCA.
The study, therefore, concludes that while light-intensity physical activity is not beneficial for cognitive development and function, both sedentariness and moderate to vigorous-intensity exercises have their individual roles to play in cognitive abilities as you get older.
The researchers recommend that the goal of 30 minutes of daily moderate to vigorous activity should be met strictly. But if the individual is sedentary after meeting this benchmark, it would not harm their cognitive abilities and may instead improve their CCA levels.
For more information, read our article on Fitness.
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