Study finds sitting isn't entirely bad for your brain, but there's a catch

Many studies have linked a sedentary lifestyle with an increased risk of developing chronic diseases, including severe conditions like heart disease and cancer. A new study has found that sitting isn't entirely bad for your health, but there's a catch: you still have to get a minimum amount of exercise weekly to dodge the ramifications of a sedentary lifestyle, according to the researchers.

The new study focused on a sedentary lifestyle and its impact on brain health and cognitive function, using highly accurate activity sensors to track how much exercise participants got per day. This differs from past studies, the researchers point out, because they often relied on self-reported data which is likely to be over-estimated. Beyond that, participants were tested across 16 different cognitive tasks to get a solid impression of brain health.

Cognitive abilities were split up into two groups: fluid and crystallized. The first of the two refers to skills like reasoning, memory, the speed at which one thinks, and problem-solving. These, the researchers note, often decline as one ages, but were found to be stronger in older adults who participated in moderate and vigorous exercise.

On the flip side, the researchers found that older adults who didn't participate in this type of exercise very often performed better on 'crystalized' cognitive tasks like vocabulary, reading comprehension, and knowledge-based tasks.

Of note, the researchers say that they didn't find a link between light physical activity like housework and one's cognitive performance — meaning, unfortunately, that this type of activity may not help slow down brain aging. However, past research has linked this type of mild activity to improved health compared to a fully sedentary lifestyle, indicating that it still has value.

There's a key missing factor in the findings, the researchers note, which is that how participants spent their sitting time may play a role in the effects it has on crystallized cognitive skills. For example, staring endlessly at a television isn't likely to help you mentally, while doing something more mentally engaging like puzzles, reading, and similar activities may explain the correlated benefits.