Too much sitting isn’t good for you, but the good news is that it doesn’t seem to affect cognitive function
By Caitlin Finlay
It’s been widely observed that sitting for long periods is bad for your health and that we need to stay active to compensate; however, a new study suggests that as long as you’re meeting basic physical activity guidelines, sitting isn’t necessarily bad for your brain.
Published in the journal Psychology and Aging, the study looked at the relationship between cognitive performance and physical activity. The participants—228 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 80—wore a sensor on their hip to record physical activity levels over a period of seven days. Their physical activity levels were then categorized as sedentariness, light physical activity, or moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. In terms of cognitive performance, the researchers looked at processing speed, reasoning, memory, reading comprehension, and vocabulary, using a collection of tests called the Virginia Cognitive Aging Battery.
The researchers found that processing speed, memory, and reasoning were highest in those who engaged in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Adults who spent more time sedentary performed better on reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. Light physical activity was not found to affect the cognitive functions tested, so while it may be beneficial for your physical health, it may not strengthen cognitive abilities.
The researchers suspect that sedentary adults were likely simultaneously engaging in educational or stimulating activities—such as reading, doing a puzzle, or playing a game—that could help strengthen the knowledge-based part of the brain.
“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,” said Aga Burzynska, the lead researcher on the study and assistant professor in the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “I hope it sends some positive message for those of us who have had limited opportunities to exercise during the pandemic.”