Skipping exercise in favor of sitting can impair brain function, according to research

Skipping exercise in favor of less demanding activities – such as sitting or lying down – was associated with a slight decline in memory and thinking ability, according to a study published Monday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The differences, while small, show how even small changes in levels of physical activity can affect human health, including brain health, said the study’s lead author John Mitchell, a researcher at the UK’s Institute for Sport, Exercise and Health.

Mitchell and colleagues used data from the British Cohort Study from 1970 to 2018.

Participants provided information about their health, background and lifestyle. They were also asked to wear the activity tracker for at least 10 consecutive hours a day for up to seven days, even while sleeping and bathing.

During the study, participants underwent a series of tests assessing their ability to process and recall information.

Participants performed an average of 51 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise each day; about six hours of light activity, such as a slow walk; and about nine hours of a sedentary lifestyle such as sitting or lying down. They also got an average of about eight hours of sleep.

Moderate to vigorous activity in the study was considered anything that “made your heart pound” or make someone “feel warmer,” Mitchell noted.

After analyzing participants’ activity data, the researchers found that those who skipped exercise in favor of eight minutes of sedentary behavior saw a 1-2% decrease in cognitive performance.

Researchers saw similar declines in cognitive performance when people replaced vigorous exercise with six minutes of light physical activity or seven minutes of sleep.

But we found the opposite to be true: exercise instead of sitting improved cognitive performance. The study found that replacing sitting or lying down with nine minutes of vigorous exercise was associated with more than a 1% increase in cognitive performance.

The findings should encourage people to move more, said Aviroop Biswas, assistant professor of epidemiology and associate research scientist at the Toronto Institute for Work and Health.

“Physical activity has many benefits, so you really want to promote as much regular physical activity as possible,” said Biswas, who was not involved in the research.

The Department of Health and Social Care recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week, in addition to two days of muscle-strengthening training.

The link between more exercise and better brain performance is still unclear, but it is likely the result of the body’s cardiovascular system, Biswas said.

“When you’re active, you’re essentially improving your heart’s strength and improving your heart’s ability to pump blood through your body and to one of the most important organs: your brain,” he said.

In contrast, when people don’t get enough exercise, it can potentially lead to many health problems, including those that affect the brain, such as dementia, said Marc Roig, professor of physics and occupational therapy at McGill University in Montreal, who was also not involved in the new study.

Exercise intensity also matters, Roig added, noting that people in the study who performed light physical activity instead of more vigorous activity also saw declines in cognitive performance.

Researchers are still trying to determine which exercise will best improve people’s overall health and prevent chronic disease, he said.

Mitchell, the study’s author, noted that light activity is still better than sitting.

“It seems indisputable that light activity is better than sitting for many aspects of health, but the jury is still out on what the critical ‘threshold’ intensity is for optimal health, including cognitive health,” he said.

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