Sitting is not always bad for your mind


It’s generally accepted health advice that adults of all ages should sit less, move more, and engage in regular exercise to feel better and lessen the risk of chronic diseases. But when it comes to the mind and cognition, a new study of elderly adults from Colorado State University indicates some sedentariness isn’t all bad, provided that basic physical action benchmarks are being met.

The research, from Assistant Professor Aga Burzynska in the CSU Department of Human Development and Family Studies, examined the association between sensor-measured physical activity and cognitive performance in a sample of 228 healthy older adults, aged 60 to 80.

Published in Aging and Psychology, the results revealed that, as anticipated, adults who engaged in more moderate-to-vigorous action had better speed, memory, and reasoning skills. On the other hand, the data also demonstrated that adults who spent longer sedentary performed well on vocabulary and reasoning tasks.


The association between increased physical activity and improved  cardiovascular and metabolic health is one that’s well documented, according to Burzynska. However, the connection between various intensities of daily physical activity and cognitive health is not as understood, especially in older adults.

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

What differentiates this research from others is how the researchers measured daily physical activity, using scientifically validated sensors which are more precise than your ordinary, consumer-based activity tracker. Other studies rely on self-reported data to measure physical activity, “and we already know that people like to overestimate their daily movement and underestimate the time they spend sitting,” Burzynska said. 

“If you ask, ‘How long did you sit today?’ people will perhaps say 2 to 3 hours when the reality is more like 6 to 8 hours,” she added.

Further, in which other studies may use just one or two measures of cognition and an overall definition of physical activity, Burzynska’s study employed a wide evaluation that tested 16 cognitive tasks. In addition, they measured and controlled for socioeconomic and health variables, such as employment status, income level, aerobic fitness, blood pressure, and movement problems.

“Our study has pretty high-quality measures that cannot be done ‘quick and dirty’,” Burzynska said.

Older adults that participated in the study wore the sensor on their hip for a span of seven days, through which the sensor recorded the daily time that they spent sitting or at mild versus moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

The cognitive assessment prompted participants to select patterns, fill-in-the-blanks, and identify shapes, among other jobs — the results of that helped investigators judge if there was a correlation between physical activity and fluid vs. crystallized cognition.

So-called”fluid” abilities, such as memory and speed, difficulty Solving, and reasoning skills, tend to decline throughout adulthood; yet, participants in the study who participated in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity performed on fluid activities, indicating that exercise might stave off a number of the typical effects of brain aging.

Most participants in the study did not spend a significant amount of time doing physical activity. data showed that, on average, most participants spent less than 2.7% of their time engaged in moderate-to-vigorous activities. Those older adults who instead sat more hours each day performed better on part-time tasks, like vocabulary tests or reading comprehension. These”crystallized” skills have a tendency to strengthen age as adults acquire more knowledge and expertise.

Interestingly, the researchers observed no associations between light physical activities — like doing laundry, cooking, or other household chores — and cognition. Although replacing sedentariness with mild physical activity has been advocated for better metabolic health, there is not any evidence of such a relationship in the cognitive level.

The researchers speculate that if people are more sedentary, they’re likely to be engaging in enlightening, stimulating activities, like reading, playing games or puzzles, or attending plays, which could serve to enhance crystallized cognition.

“There’s this big push within health and wellness that sitting is always bad for your body, that being a couch potato is not good,” Burzynska said, “and although our earlier studies indicated that the brains of those who spend more time sitting may age faster, it seems that on the cognitive level, sitting time may also be meaningful.”


However, future studies are required to determine how the participants spent their time sitting before any definitive conclusions can be reached about sedentary activity and cognitive health.

Burzynska says the research reinforces the recommendation that regular exercise is good for general health, but for those older adults who may not have the ability to become more physically active, engaging in more cognitively demanding tasks might also be an option.

“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. “I hope it sends some positive message for those of us who have had limited opportunities to exercise during the pandemic.”

In the quest for long term brain health, it seems balance is the solution.

“When you exercise, enjoy your exercise. Maybe sometimes think, ‘Yeah I’m going to go sit now and enjoy a really good book,” Burzynska added.

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Categories: Health Life