Standing Up for Health: Immobility and the Brain

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However, researchers described physical inactivity as being possibly one of the most significant contributors to cancer-related cognitive impairments in cancer patients. Excessive lack of exercise is so harmful to us that its negative effects on our neurophysiological well-being are comparable to those experienced from many anti-cancer treatments — like chemotherapy and radiation, which both limit cerebral blood flow.

But for cancer patients who do engage in physical activity, research has shown that there is a clear improvement in self-reported cognitive impairment. A study led by Adrian Bauman showed that physical activity has positive effects on verbal memory, attention, and function in various frontal brain regions.

But the research of physical inactivity and its negative effects on the brain aren’t just relegated to the clinical environment. Large firms and companies from a variety of sectors are now beginning to acknowledge the fact that in order to maintain a healthy and productive work environment, employees must become aware of how long they sit during the workday and how often they move. Research is beginning to show that physical inactivity doesn’t only lead to cognitive deficits, such as attention and memory loss, but it also has significant negative effects on our ability to process positive affect and on our capacity for regulating emotions.

A study led by Dr. Michelle Kilpatrick, published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, explored the relationship between prolonged occupational sitting and psychological distress in employed adults. Kilpatrick and her team took a survey of 3,367 state-government employees in Tasmania and Australia, asking participants to report the time they spent sitting at work on a typical day. Using the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale, they measured the psychological distress of the employees; while the International Physical Activity Questionnaire was utilized in order to measure their physical activity.

Results showed that when compared to those sitting at work for less than three hours per day, men who sat more than six hours per day had an increased prevalence of moderate psychological distress. Women who sat for more than six hours per day had moderate to high psychological distress.

Even though this study became one of the first to show a clear association between prolonged sitting and general psychological distress within the workplace, researchers were still interested to see if physical inactivity could be a causal factor for the development of specific and complicated psychological disorders (such as major depressive disorder).

A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine explored this further. Data from 8,950 women aged 50 to 55 included surveys completed over a nine-year period. The women were instructed to report any symptoms of depression, how long they spent sitting per day (under or over four to seven hours per day), and the amount of physical activity that they engaged in (none, some, or meeting recommended national guidelines — i.e., at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week).

The researchers found that women who sat more than seven hours a day, or women who did no physical activity at all, were more likely to have depressive symptoms than women who sat four or less hours per day and who met physical activity guidelines, respectively. Astonishingly, the likelihood of depressive symptoms in women who not only sat less than seven hours per day but also did no physical activity was triple that of women who sat less than four hours a day and met physical-activity guidelines. There is absolutely no doubt that exercise is beneficial for your health. But it just may not be sufficient enough. The solution seems to be a simple one: Sit less and move more often throughout the day.

As a researcher in a hospital, I spend long hours in front of my computer performing data analysis, conducting research reviews, and writing scientific articles. But I have decided to use a standing desk which can be raised or lowered whenever I want to either stand or sit. Some behaviors you can implement during your workday can be to stand while talking on the phone or having lunch and walking while having meetings with your colleagues instead of sitting in a conference room.

And no, you don’t need an Apple Watch to make these small adjustments; adjustments that can have significant effects on your emotional, physical, and neurological well-being. So the next time Simen gets a reminder from his Apple Watch to stand up from the family dinner table, I might just have to get up too, and give a toast to my family and give thanks to the simple and profound importance of standing. Skål to good health!

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2017 issue.

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