Sitting not always unhealthy: For seniors, exercising the brain while seated can be a good thing

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Sitting is often called “the new smoking” by those who promote being physically active all day. While an active lifestyle may be good for the body, a study finds taking a seat can help your brain — if it’s being exercised. A researcher at Colorado State University says older adults who sit more and stimulate their brains with mental tasks perform better on cognitive tests than their more active peers.

Aga Burzynska, an assistant professor in the CSU Department of Human Development and Family Studies, says regular exercise helps people of all ages feel better and reduces the risk of various chronic illnesses. For older adults however, a sedentary lifestyle isn’t always done by choice.

While the study finds moderate-to-vigorous activity can help seniors with their speed and memory, Burzynska finds those who spend more time sitting down have stronger vocabulary and reasoning skills.

“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,” the researcher explains in a university release.

People sit more than they say

Study authors measured the daily activities of 228 healthy adults between 60 and 80 years-old. Unlike other studies which rely on self-reporting of behavior, researchers monitored each participant’s daily routine using a sensor which tracked their sitting and standing.

The group wore the sensor on their hips for seven days so the study could capture when each person started light or vigorous physical activity.

“We already know that people like to overestimate their daily movement and underestimate the time they spend sitting,” Burzynska adds. “If you ask, ‘How long did you sit today?’ people will perhaps say two to three hours when the reality is more like six to eight hours.”

Sitting down and thinking can sharpen your brain

Researchers tested each senior with a series of cognitive problems like selecting patterns, filling in the blanks, and identifying shapes. This helped the CSU team look at both “fluid” and “crystallized” cognition.

Fluid skills include speed, memory, problem solving, and reasoning skills. These all tend to decline as we grow older. These are also the skills which are aided by regular physical activity, researchers find. Seniors who engaged in moderate-to-vigorous exercise on a regular basis performed better in fluid tests.

Crystallized abilities however, seem to rely on people sitting down and concentrating. These skills seem to strengthen as a person gains more knowledge and experience. Participants who sat down more ended up performing better on the exams measuring vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Study authors say these tests show a pattern in how the brain works, but they don’t provide a cause. The team theorizes much of the benefits of sitting come from what seniors are doing during this time. Those periods are likely filled by reading, completing puzzles, attending performances, and other educational activities.

“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 says. “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.”

Does always being active really do much for seniors?

The study also finds the average senior may not be as active as they might hope. Most participants in the group spent less than three percent of their day in moderate-to-vigorous activities.

Researchers add light physical activity, like doing laundry, cooking, and other chores, had little to no impact on cognitive skills. Although health experts recommend replacing as much sitting time with activity as possible, this seems to be more for the body than the mind.

“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,” the CSU professor concludes.

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

The study appears in the journal Psychology and Aging.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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