This Won’t Sit Well With You, But You’ve Really Got to Get Off Your Butt

Physical exercise


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

It’s no longer news that sitting too much has been linked to a variety of health problems including obesity, fatty liver disease, diabetes, cardiovascular problems and even premature death. There is also significant evidence suggesting that exercising regularly may not even be enough to counter the harmful physical effects of prolonged sitting. And if this isn’t enough to get you out of your chair to take “moving breaks” throughout the day, recent studies indicating that sitting may also impact your brain health may do the trick.

One recent study at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) of middle-aged and older adults linked prolonged sitting to changes in a section of our brains that is critical for memory. The researchers found that sedentary behavior – in other words, sitting – is a significant predictor of these changes. While the study does not definitively prove that sitting for hours-on-end causes changes in these brain structures, there is enough of a relationship to be concerned.

It’s worth noting that these same changes that impact memory – a thinning of specific areas of the brain – can also be a precursor to cognitive decline and dementia. And, as with physical health, the researchers unfortunately found that exercise, even at high levels, is not enough to offset these harmful effects of sitting for extended periods.

Another study, this one at Wayne University, suggested that laboratory animals forced to lead a sedentary lifestyle also experienced noticeable changes in their brain structure. This time, however, instead of thinning in the part of the brain that influences memory, the researchers saw noticeable changes in the structure of the neurons in the part of the brain that control the fight-or-flight response, which made them more sensitive to stimuli.

The result was erratic brain responses which could increase the probability of cardiovascular disease and hypertension which, in turn, impact brain health.

There also is compelling evidence that sitting for long periods – in addition to being sedentary in general – also reduces cognitive ability. For example, some studies have shown that the time spent watching television has been associated with poorer memory and reduced information processing speed and verbal fluency.

Sitting and Mental Health

Being glued to our chairs all day at work, having long commutes in the car, and, for many of us, sitting a lot once we get home too, is now being shown to have a detrimental impact on our emotional health. All this inactivity caused by sitting too much can create anxiety or, if we already are anxious to begin with, make our anxiety worse. Given that anxiety, to one degree or another, affects almost 18 percent of the U.S adult population, the possible link between being sedentary and anxiety disorders is not something to be taken lightly.

Sitting too much also has been linked to a higher degree of psychological distress, depression and a general reduced sense of well-being. One study in Australia, for example, suggested that people who spent more than six hours of a typical workday sitting down were more likely to score “moderate” or “high” on tests of psychological distress than were their counterparts who sat fewer than three hours at a stretch.

Another study suggested that middle-age women who sat for more than seven hours a day were more likely to have symptoms of depression. For these women, sitting probably also created a vicious circle since being depressed decreases energy, less energy usually means sitting more and sitting more increases depression.

To be fair, some of this impact on our emotional health may also involve what we are doing while we spend countless hours on our chairs or sofas. We may be replacing human interaction with our screens or vegging out in front of the television eating foods that are not good for us, both of which can impact mood and emotional wellbeing. It’s also possible that sitting means we’re not doing some sort of physical activity, which has been shown to have a positive effect on how we see and interact with the world.

How Sitting Impacts the Brain

Our brains need lots of fuel, mostly in the form of glucose and oxygen, to function optimally. It demands up to 20 percent of our body's’ overall resting energy requirements. Glucose, as well as other nutrients and oxygen, are delivered to the brain by our blood. So, it only makes sense that disruption of blood flow may impact brain health.

Sitting, as it turns out, has been shown to slow the flow of blood to the brain. This blood flow, and in the right amounts, is so important that your body goes to great lengths to regulate it. There is evidence that even small, short-term reductions in blood flow to the brain – as can happen when we sit for long periods – can temporarily impact thinking and memory.

What You Should Be Doing

The first, and perhaps the easiest, thing you can do to counteract the negative effects of sitting for extended periods is, of course, to try to not do it. Since research shows that exercise after a long bout of sitting, such as after work for example, doesn’t do much to counteract the hours at your desk, your best bet is to take “standing” or “walking breaks” throughout the day.

And keep in mind, you need to fuel your body (along with your brain) with a balance of the right nutrients to perform well at physical activity (even if you are just going for a walk or jogging up a few flights of stairs to get away from your desk during work).

It’s now known that blood flow to your brain increases if you take a walk after sitting for a couple of hours. As an added bonus, if you take these walks after a meal, you make it easier for your body to improve glucose control which is also great for your brain health among other health benefits. If you can’t get up and walk around, even just standing and stomping your feet a bit (which increases blood flow) can make a difference. The important thing is to break up your sitting – a good target would be to get up and stroll every half hour or so.

Some other things you can do are get yourself – or ask your employer to get you – a sit-stand desk so that you can alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day. You can try working or reading while you use a treadmill (there are some models that you incorporate with your desk to keep moving while you work).

You also can help ensure the fuel your brain is getting includes the minerals and vitamins it needs to help offset the negative. A healthy diet with the following is the best way to do this:

  • Fish – Fish provides you with protein and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients may improve mental performance.
  • Blueberries – They are jam-packed with antioxidants, which may reduce damage from environmental free radicals that cause aging. They also may help delay age-related memory loss and combat inflammation.
  • Nuts and seeds – These little guys are full of essential fatty acids, protein and amino acids. They stimulate the pituitary gland to release a growth hormone, which you need throughout your life, but which unfortunately is not produced in sufficient amounts after you turn 35.
  • Green tea – This healthy tea enhances working memory and boosts brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to change, adapt and remap itself throughout your life – it’s “moldable”).
  • Veggies – Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts are high in choline, a vital nutrient for memory and brain health.
  • Vitamins – Consuming vitamin E, vitamin C and vitamin B12 can lower your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
  • DHA – DHA is the most common omega-3 fatty acid in the brain, but your body is not good at making it, so you need to get it mostly from dietary sources. It is crucial for the growth and development of the brain in infants and is required for the adult brain to work properly. It improves learning ability and has a positive effect on diseases such as diabetes and some cancers. In fact, a DHA deficiency is associated with depression, ADHD and cystic fibrosis as well.

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.





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