Standing Up for Health: Immobility and the Brain

My wife’s family and I go out to dinner about once every week. And because they are Norwegian, the dinners are long and hearty — several hours consisting of deep conversations, multiple courses, wine pairings, and, of course, a little aquavit to wash everything down at the end. And even when you think it is over, there is always a reason to move the dinner party outside onto the restaurant patio to have coffee, to sit, and to bask in the Norwegian midnight-sun. But out of all the family members there is one that has a hard time sitting for long periods of time — Simen, my brother-in-law.


Simen is a young, vivacious, and hard-working businessman who truly embodies his profession as the CEO of a successful music-promotion agency in Norway. He wears ironed button-up shirts of muted colors, cuffed selvedge denim jeans, crisp white sneakers, and an Apple Watch on his wrist. Out of all these items, the Apple Watch seems to define his professional character the most — it sends him notifications of successful deals, emails from important clients, meeting times, and, about 10 minutes to every hour, reminds him that he needs to get up and stand for at least a single minute.

This last reminder, also known as the stand indicator, is part of Apple Watch’s Activity app, which helps users automatically track their daily movements and meet fitness goals throughout the day. But whenever Simen randomly gets up from the dinner table and stands, we either laugh and joke about how awkward it is to just stand there like a robot or we try to get him to just give a toast to us all. But as I laugh and continue sipping my wine at the end of the table, sinking deeper and deeper into my chair, there is always a part of me that feels that maybe I should get up too. The average American adult sits an average of eight hours a day and sleeps an average of eight hours, resulting in a sedentary lifestyle of around 16 hours a day.

While Americans know about the importance of exercise, only around 31 percent go to the gym, and around 56 percent devote less than $10 per month to staying active. This has resulted in a new phenomenon called “sitting disease,” which has linked sitting for prolonged periods of time to a number of health concerns including obesity and metabolic syndrome (i.e., increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels).

Research has shown that too much sitting can exponentially increase one’s risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer — and, turns out, spending a few hours a week at the gym engaging in moderate or vigorous activity doesn’t significantly offset the risk. It seems absurd to think that such a simple activity like sitting could be so detrimental to our health, even for those who consistently work out. Even more mysterious is the way in which prolonged sitting has detrimental effects on the brain’s neurophysiological architecture.

For decades, neuroscientific research within the field of mobility has been predominantly geared toward studying the positive effects of exercise, especially aerobic exercise, on the brain. Exercise has shown to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, stimulate the release of growth factors, improve mood and sleep, and reduce stress and anxiety. A clear increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a molecule that increases neuronal survival, actually enhances your ability to learn, and, in people who exercise, protects against cognitive decline.

The science behind how immobility negatively affects the brain is still very new. Yet findings are already significant and may stand as one of the cornerstones to understanding how we may maintain a healthy and long life. Some scholars believe that humans have evolved to stay active and that the rise of sedentary lifestyles is a direct hindrance to how we would naturally operate. A 2012 review in the journal Comprehensive Physiology supports this claim, suggesting that many modern diseases, particularly those increasing in developed countries, are intrinsically linked to physical inactivity largely because human beings are genetically equipped for an active lifestyle.

Research on physical inactivity has already shown a decrease of hippocampal neurogenesis and a loss of hippocampal volume in the brain — the center of emotion and memory that also controls the autonomic nervous system. Both the loss of volume and the inability to grow new tissue within this region can lead to memory loss and problems with decision-making.


Inactivity is also associated with decreased neurogenesis (lack of growth) in the cerebellum, inducing problems in motor programs and in the olfactory bulb (a neural structure critical to our ability to smell). According to a paper published in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences, heart-failure patients show a loss of gray-matter volume and cortical thickness not caused by cardiac disease or any other medical condition but which rather can be directly correlated to poor physical fitness.

In addition to heart-failure patients, researchers have also been able to show that the development of cancer-related cognitive impairments, typical of many cancer patients, can be directly tied to physical inactivity. The development of these impairments is a multifactorial process with many contributing factors, some of which include cancer-related fatigue, psychological factors, molecular factors, and patient-associated factors.


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