Can Sitting Do Your Brain Good?
This is part of our “In Medical News” series where Dr. Sara Laudani shares a study or article in recent news and offers some analysis and tips about the news, to help patients stay informed.
“Sitting may not always be bad for the brain and, in fact, may benefit cognition,” shares an October 2020 Medscape article citing new research.
This may sound contradictory to what we usually think about physical and brain health. But, it seems the research is not suggesting people do not need physical activity. It is simply pointing to potential cognitive benefits that can also come from sedentary time. That is, with a big caveat...if the person is also sufficiently physically active.
"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 starting at the TV — that this combination might be the best way to take care of your brain," said lead author Aga Burzynska, Ph.D., assistant professor, Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
More sedentary time was associated with better performance on tests of vocabulary knowledge as well as reasoning. Daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was associated with better fluid abilities, such as processing speed, memory, and problem-solving.
We’re all spending more time sitting and we know many of the negatives of a sedentary lifestyle so health professionals already emphasize physical activity. Now, researchers want to gain a better understanding of the cognitive effects of sitting and, especially, what we do while sitting. Sensors also now help more accurately measure activity levels and types, which people tend to misreport.
*Activity was divided into sedentary, light physical activity, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
- Sedentary behavior was associated with greater vocabulary knowledge, though the effect was small.
- Moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was associated with faster perceptual speed.
- Time spent in sedentary behavior and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity were associated with better reasoning.
- Comfort at a computer and cardiorespiratory fitness were also positively associated with reasoning, though effects were quite small.
- Light physical activity was not associated with either fluid or crystallized abilities.
What does this mean to you?
As with many studies, this cannot be simplified too much and is only one piece of research. Also, the study results were all associations, not causal. So, they do not conclude, for example, that sitting leads to a better vocabulary.
The results may point to some benefits from sedentary time. However, we need to better understand how much the quality and type of sedentary activity matters. The study suggests that a combination of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and sedentary activities (likely focused on socialization, learning, etc.) may benefit brain health most.
Most importantly, don’t misread this study and think it’s a good excuse not to keep your body moving. Physical activity (especially more vigorous activity) still showed benefits in this study. And, many studies have pointed to all kinds of health benefits to regular exercise.
Dr. Sara Laudani offers consultations in internal medicine and functional and nutritional medicine in our Hongmei Road Clinic – Hongqiao. Click here to schedule an appointment with her and find out how her holistic approach and protocols can help you resolve your health issues.