I’m lucky!  I’m a chiropractor and I get to bend, twist, pull, and push all day.  But a lot of jobs require sitting in front of a computer for several million hours a day, and a new study just published in the Public Library of Science found all of that sitting can change your brain — it actually shrinks the part of your brain responsible for storing memories.  Say what?!!

If you spend a lot of time being sedentary it could slowly lead to the shrinking of your medial temporal lobe (MTL).  That’s your brain’s memory-storage bin.  Neurologists use brain size as an indicator of potential Alzheimer’s or dementia.  If you’re thinking ‘I’ll just work out harder to counter long periods of sitting’, researchers have found that “physical activity, even at high levels, is insufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods.”

Physical activity, even at high levels, is insufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods.

Here’s another twist.  Not all sitting is created equal. There may be two distinct groups: mentally active sitting and mentally inactive sitting. In mentally active sitting, you may be performing cognitive demanding tasks such as puzzles, documentation, or computer games.  In mentally inactive sitting, you are engaging in less demanding tasks such as watching television.   So, if you’re using your brain to complete complex tasks while sitting, you have a better chance of keeping your MTL strong than if you spend a lot of time vegging on the couch.

As a side note, one study found that standing desks maybe aren’t actually as good as we thought.  A review of stationary standing vs. treadmill desks in the workplace found few improvements in physiological outcomes with standing desks.  However, greater improvements were associated with treadmill desk use.  A caveat though; treadmill desks also resulted in decreases in work productivity due to the complexity of the required coordination.

Research notes that standing desks simply replace one constant behavior with another.  A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology concluded that it’s not actually sitting that’s bad for you, it’s being stationary for long periods of time. Moving is good for you.  Motion is lotion!

Moving is good for you.  Motion is lotion!

If you work in an office, you probably move around more than if you worked from home.  In an office there are trips to get coffee, or another worker’s desk, or jaunts to meetings that force you to get up.  If you work from home maybe you should get a dog who demands you go for quick walks.  While getting an hour of vigorous exercise every day sounds like a way to reverse the effects of sitting, researchers say that’s not the solution either.

A different study published in the Public Library of Science suggests consistent movement throughout the day is better than a one-hour intense workout.  One hour of daily physical exercise cannot compensate the negative effects of inactivity on insulin levels and plasma lipids if the rest of the day is spent sitting.

Commitment to getting consistent motion throughout your day can combat that creepy brain-shrinkage, and ward-off a host of other health problems.  Take the stairs instead of the elevator.  Take a short walk after lunch and make sure you get up from your desk every few hours and walk around the office. Because, when you’re 60, you’ll be glad you took those walks.  And, you might be more likely to remember where you put your car keys.


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