A Sedentary Lifestyle Could Be Bad for Your Brain

Staying sedentary for extended time periods decreases blood flow to the brain. Sound like your work day?. GenerationClash/Shutterstock

For many, a sedentary life is the norm. Lots of jobs require sitting in front of a computer for most of the day, and there are plenty of us who like to spend evenings and weekends lounging on the couch in front of the TV or reading a good book.

It seems pretty intuitive that staying seated for extended periods of time isn't conducive to good health. But in case you need some examples, too much sitting can cause issues such as increased blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular complications, high cholesterol levels, and even put you at a higher risk for cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Studies have shown that sitting for a prolonged period of time can worsen anxiety, and even though exercise seems like it would be the best way to combat the negative effects of sitting for too long, a good workout won't solve all your problems.

It's also been found that sitting isn't really the problem when it comes to the detriments of a sedentary life; the bigger issue is staying in one place for too long that's problematic.

Now, a new study conducted by researchers at Liverpool John Moores University in England, has shown that staying seated for too long could potentially be bad for the health of your brain, reports The New York Times.

The issue here is that staying sedentary for extended time periods decreases blood flow to the brain.

Our blood contains the oxygen and nutrients that are needed for healthy brain function. Decreased blood flow means the brain doesn't get the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function properly.

When oxygen can't make its way to the brain, cognition skills become poor, and thinking clearly becomes difficult. Memory can also be affected negatively if the brain doesn't receive the proper amount of oxygen.

A closer look at an office still life

For this particular study, the researchers examined fluctuations in the participants' blood flow in correlation to sitting for a lengthy amount of time.

A group of 15 healthy female and male office workers participated in the study, which took place on three separate occasions in three different scenarios.

In each scenario, the participants were fitted with headbands equipped with ultrasound probes that monitored blood flow levels in their middle cerebral arteries, which are some of the main arteries that send blood to the brain.

The carbon dioxide levels of the participants were also measured at the beginning of each trial by having the participants breath into masks. This was done to see if changes in carbon dioxide levels would play a part in blood flow fluctuations.

On the first occasion, the participants were asked to sit for four hours at a desk while either working at a computer or reading. The participants were only allowed to get up to walk to a nearby bathroom.

During the second trial, participants were asked to get up from their desks every 30 minutes, and then walk for two minutes at a slow pace on a treadmill next to their desks. They walked at a pace of roughly two miles per hour.

The third and final visit saw the participants get up for an eight-minute break after two hours of continuous sitting. During their break they walked the treadmill at the same speed as they did during the second scenario.

The results

Office interior including three workspaces, and three empty desks
So let's take another look at that office environment. If everyone got up out of their chairs more frequently, it could work wonders for their brains. GenerationClash/Shutterstock

It came as no surprise that blood flow to the brain decreased after four hours of sitting with no consistent break. The drop wasn't huge, but levels decreased nonetheless.

In the scenario in which participants took a break after two hours, the levels of blood flow also declined. Blood flow levels increased during the walking break, yet the levels dipped back down once participants returned to their desks, and were lower than when the sitting session initially began.

When the participants took short breaks every half-hour, their blood flow levels increased.

"Only the frequent two-minute walking break had an overall effect of preventing a decline in brain blood flow," says Sophie Carter, doctoral student at Liverpool John Moores University and study leader.

There was no change in the participants' carbon dioxide levels in any of the three scenarios.

While the study itself wasn't meant to determine whether prolonged sitting can cause long-term damage to the brain, we do know that short-term effects occur, and that could offer some clues in the long run about the relation between brain health and spending your day bound to a desk.

So, if you're pretty much parked in one place throughout your workday, you should consider getting up for a brief walk every half-hour; it could ensure you stay sharp during your day, and it might even prove beneficial to the long-term health of your brain.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.