Now, we know what you’re thinking: 10 hours is a long time to be sitting—but if you really think about it, taking into account the time you spend in a chair in the office, on the couch, in the car, or out to eat, it’s really not that far of a stretch in modern times. (In fact, it’s because of people’s proclivity for extended periods of sitting that Apple has gone so far as to offer standing alerts on the Apple Watch.) And that’s if you’re able-bodied—some of us have no choice other than to sit all day every day.
This begs the question: What can you do while sitting to curb these cognitive health effects? To find out, we chatted with neuroscience researcher and neurodegenerative disease expert, Dale Bredesen, MD.
The risks of a sedentary lifestyle on brain health
Once upon a time, children and adults were up and moving upwards of 10 hours a day. The reason? Work, leisure, creating community, and simply having fun. Nowadays, thanks to technology, it’s possible to make a living and be sufficiently entertained without so much as leaving your couch, much less home. As wonderful as technology is, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. After all, if you remain stationary for hours on end—whether it’s in pursuit of tackling a deadline, catching up on your favorite shows, or hitting a new high score—you can inadvertently harm your health down the road.
According to Dr. Bredesen, a stationary lifestyle can lead to adverse health effects like suboptimal metabolism, and, as recently shown, dementia. While all quite different, these downsides actually go hand in hand, as they all boil down to energetics and inflammation, Dr. Bredesen says.
“The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s, and research has shown that this is largely driven by two factors,” he explains. Those are energetics (oxygenation, blood flow, mitochondrial function, and ketone level) and inflammation (which is increased by pathogens, toxins, leaky gut, air pollution, poor dentition, etc.), according to Dr. Bredesen. “A sedentary lifestyle reduces energetic support for the brain, and is often associated with poor nutrition, as well—sitting on the couch and eating chips, for example—which increases inflammation,” he says.
How to curb the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on cognitive function
Simply standing and walking more often throughout your day may not be feasible for everyone, like those who are wheelchair-bound or whose job requires long hours at a desk. If that’s the case, Dr. Bredesen says that there are five key lifestyle habits that you can employ to support energetics and reduce inflammation, effectively warding off cognitive decline in the process.
1. Fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods
“Eat a plant-rich diet,” Dr. Bredesen says. Prioritizing nutrient-dense, plant-based foods can help boost metabolism and digestion, prevent inflammation, and foster better health overall.
2. Move your body
Bredesen emphasizes the importance of daily exercise of 45 to 60 minutes, including both aerobic and strength training. “These [modalities] have different mechanisms of cognitive support,” he explains. That doesn’t mean you have to rigorously move your body, though. Bredesen says performing seated weight exercises, as well as banded movements counts. Another idea? Get a walking pad to turn your traditional desk into a cognition-boosting workspace, if that’s an option for you.
When working movement into your sedentary lifestyle, Dr. Bredesen says that resistance is everything. “Resistance training increases insulin sensitivity, one of the most important metabolic parameters for optimal cognition,” he points out. “It also increases PGC-1alpha, which enhances mitochondrial function, increases detox, and supports cognitive function.”
3. Prioritize sleep
As important as movement and diet are, quality sleep has the biggest impact on your overall health. Because of this, Dr. Bredesen recommends getting at least seven to eight hours of high-quality sleep per night. Specifically, he says to aim for at least “one hour of deep sleep and at least 1.5 hours of REM sleep.” An easy way to track these numbers is with a sleep tracker.
4. Manage your stress
While movement, diet, and sleep can help you to lead a less stressful life, making time for meditation and other restorative practices, like yoga, deep breathing, and sound baths, is also worthwhile, Dr. Bredesen says. There are plenty of free meditation apps to help you cultivate more mindfulness and calm.
5. Train your brain
Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and even Wordle have one thing in common: They boost brain activity. According to Dr. Bredesen brain training is essential for maintaining cognitive health. He suggests looking into Brain HQ to challenge your noggin.
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- Raichlen DA, Aslan DH, Sayre MK, et al. Sedentary Behavior and Incident Dementia Among Older Adults. JAMA. 2023;330(10):934–940. doi:10.1001/jama.2023.15231