Sitting’s bad rap: Sedentary lifestyle could be good for older adults

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While we regularly hear how older adults have to stay active if they want to stay physically fit and mentally strong, new research shows that there is some benefit for those who lead a more sedentary lifestyle.

When it comes to brain health and cognition, a new study of older adults from Colorado State University suggests that some level of sedentariness can contribute to great mental acuity in some areas, as long as basic physical activity benchmarks are being met.

The research, which examined the physical activity and cognitive performance of 228 healthy older adults aged between 60 to 80, found that those who spent more time sitting performed better on vocabulary and reasoning tasks than those who were more physically active.

Researcher Dr Aga Burzynska said that while the association between physical activity and cardiovascular health was well documented, the link between different intensities of daily physical activity and brain health was less 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,” Dr Burzynska said.

“Those decreases are totally within a normal range, but this study was looking to understand how our behaviours and habits may correlate with cognitive outcomes in older age.”

The researchers in this study measured daily physical activity using scientifically validated sensors that are more accurate than consumer-based activity trackers such as Fitbits.

These devices were used because of the propensity for people to overestimate their daily movement and underestimate the time they spent sitting in tests where the subjects were allowed to self-report.

“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,” she added.

Older adults who participated in the study wore the sensor on their hip for a span of seven days, during which the sensor captured the daily time they spent sitting or in light versus moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Participants were expected to complete 16 cognitive tasks, broken down into two sections – ‘fluid’ and ‘crystallised’.

‘Fluid’ abilities, such as speed and memory, problem solving, and reasoning skills, tend to decline through adulthood.

‘Crystallised’ activities were more knowledge-based activities such as reading comprehension or vocabulary tests, which tend to strengthen with age as adults acquire more knowledge and experience.

Participants who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activities performed better on fluid tasks, suggesting that exercise might stave off some of the typical effects of brain ageing, but there was no such advantage when it came to ‘crystallised’ activities.

The researchers speculate that this may be because when people are sedentary, they are more likely to be engaging in mentally-stimulating activities such as reading or playing games and puzzles, which might serve to boost performance in crystallised 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,” Dr Burzynska said.

“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.”

“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.

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

How much of your day do you spend sitting? How do you think you would rate on these cognition tests? Have you spent more time sitting this year than in previous years due to the pandemic?

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Written by Ben

9 Comments

Total Comments: 9
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    Who has time to sit anyway, sitting for a meal is about it for me unfort, otherwise if not lying down asleep am always flat out (working 12hr shifts/shiftwork & racing around trying to do the mundane stuff (like home/cleaning/cooking chores, lawn mowing, chainsaw/wood gathering, yard duties, grocery shopping, paying or sorting/researching bills & such on computer/phone, chasing other stuff in town etc. Also have a busy social life/family/friend network & they keep me very busy as well. Just managing to force enough time to do a short workout &/or walk my son’s dog & very occasionally find time trying to learn to play guitar (tho struggle to find time for this, sadly!
    Life is & always was so busy, tho slowing down a little at 59. If our brain health function etc are not as good after 60yo why are we being told/forced to work more as we get older rather than slow down & smell the roses & get early old age pension! Expectation that we shouldn’t be getting govt assistance & the reality that we probably need it are 2 totally different things! Contradictory, conflicting info or we’re being told some pretty big pork pies by somebody!

  2. 0
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    At 79 I spend a lot of time sitting at the computer during the day and learn heaps. I also write (have published four books to date, plus hundreds of magazine articles), as well as tracing family tree. I also watch TV in the evening and keep up to date with current affairs. I grocery shop and drive several days a week and manage quite well physically, despite a couple of chronic complaints. So I guess health, mental and physical, is all in the mix. Oh, I forgot to mention three mentally stimulating grandchildren and a loving wife.

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      I think BillW41 is right Is it suggested people sitting amlesly? Sometimes people sitt for phisical problem but still occupy them self meaningfully
      What about resurcher sitting in laboratories?
      So forth?

  3. 0
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    not sure why this research is surprising; afterall sitting did not seem to be a limiting factor for Stephen Hawking

    • 0
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      Agree farside. I have a client who has no legs, and only 1/2 an arm. is 74, takes no medication and is as healthier than most of the abled body people I know.

  4. 0
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    At the end of the day it is good genes and good luck as to living to an old age. My grandmother lived to 105 & 11 months. Never exercised a day in her life. LOVED desserts and chocolates, was overweight but not really obese. She played lawn bowls in her 70/80’s and I think 90’s. You can generally work out who is going to live the longest by the amount of medications they are on. My grandmother was hardly on any until possibly the last 10 years of her life. I have friends in their 60s already poppin 2 or 3 tablets a day.
    Just enjoy your food with moderate exercise and happy thoughts every day and you are are already a winner.

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      Popping cholesterol pills myself from age 50, tried on doc’s advice to lower with diet but his advice was either to live like a rabbit for the rest of your life or take a tablet a day. He says it’s in your genes, you inherited it. Sure I took the tablet.

  5. 0
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    What a relief. Learning to allow sedentary time is a lesson thats come a bit late for me. Even retired I kept up the same highly active life in my home and outside. I believed physical activity was so important that I ended many basic everyday activities sore and aching and so tired that just getting myself to bed was a challenge at night. I am now paying bigtime with very damaged feet. The podiatrist and my doctor both told me that continuing exercise and everyday activities was not to cease but abour 4 months on, in pain everytime I stood and a mess at the end of the day the thought crossed my mind that maybe slowing down and staying off my feet when they were hurting might be worth trying. So I did. Results were instant though after a lifetime of being told to keep moving it was a huge internal battle. My feet are still painful but I can still get a lot done in my days and I have not gained weight, I feel ok in the rest of me and my home and life has not suffered in terms of getting the necessities of life accomplished. Prior to this I also had an unpleasant and scary development where on days I had really pushed myself, powering through the pain, the following day I was driven to bed and sleeping for hours because I was so exhausted. I worked out that it was, or must have been, the level of pain that caused the exhaustion. Now when I monitor how I feel, plan sitting activities when my feet are burning those days of passed out sleeping have ceased. Now, a bit too late sadly, I would say that constant pressure to be physically active is potentially toxic advice. Its important to move and use our bodies, a joy too, but letting our bodies just be, and exercising our hearts and minds too is equally – and sometimes more – important. Sedentary does not equal dead – it is just as alive as a walk in the bush. Balance is the key. Every day.


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