Most jobs today require sitting in front of the computer for eleventy-million hours, and a new study published in the Public Library of Science found that all of that sitting can change your brain — it actually shrinks the part of your brain responsible for storing memories. Say what now?
If you spend a lot of time being sedentary, it could eventually lead to atrophy of the medial temporal lobe (MTL), which is basically your brain's memory-storage bin. "The researchers found that sedentary behavior is a significant predictor of thinning of the MTL and that physical activity, even at high levels, is insufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods," a statement from the authors noted.
What's more, not all sitting is created equal. "It is possible that there may be two distinct groups: mentally active sitting and mentally inactive sitting. In mentally active sitting, individuals may be attending to cognitive demanding tasks such as crossword puzzles, documentation, writing, or computer games," The study explained. "In mentally inactive sitting, individuals may be engaging in less demanding, passive tasks such as watching television or movies." So, if you're using your brain to complete complex tasks while sitting, you have a better chance of keeping your MTL strong than if you spend a lot of time couching and marathoning Gilmore Girls yet again.
So, how can we avoid sitting for so long? At a one of my previous jobs, the company employed an ergonomic specialist who would meet with all new hires and offer them the option of a standing desk. The desk also came with a jacked up chair so workers could take a break from standing and sit for a bit. They also handed out sheets of paper with exercises that they encouraged perpetual sitters to perform once an hour in order to combat the effects of spending so much time hunched over their desks.
One study found, however, that standing desks aren't actually as good for you as we thought. "A systematic review of standing and treadmill desks in the workplace found few short-term improvements in physiological outcomes with standing desks," the study explained. "However, greater improvements were associated with treadmill desk use (although treadmill desks also resulted in larger decreases in work productivity and motor abilities)." I am not coordinated enough to walk a treadmill and also write articles, so a standing desk is a no from me.
Research suggests that standing desks don't really work because standing instead of sitting simply replaces one constant behavior with another, which just shifts stress to a different part of your body. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology concluded that it's not actually sitting that's bad for you, it's being stationary for long periods of time. This might be why adding the treadmill is important. Moving your body is good for you, which can be difficult for workers who are chained to their computers.
If you work in an office, you're probably moving around more than people who work from home, like me. In an office environment, there's trips to the kitchen to get coffee, walks to colleagues' desks, and jaunts to meetings that force you to get up from your desk on the regular. This is one of the reasons I got a dog when I started working from home six years ago, so I would be motivated to get out of my chair. While getting exercise every day sounds like a smart way to reverse the effects of sitting, researchers say that's not the solution either.
The blog Optimize Yourself explained that rigorous exercise after a long hard day of sitting might actually do more harm than good. "According to biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of the fantastic book Move Your DNA, you may actually be increasing your risk for cardiac issues by sitting all day and then jamming in a workout at night," the blog noted. "By sitting all day you are restricting blood flow and circulation through your blood vessels, and when you suddenly try to pump enormous amounts of blood through these vessels very quickly, it’s like trying to run water through a kinked hose."
While it might sound like there's no way to win here, the solution is actually pretty simple. Another study published in the Public Library of Science explained that consistent movement throughout the day is better than a one-hour intense workout. "One hour of daily physical exercise cannot compensate the negative effects of inactivity on insulin level and plasma lipids if the rest of the day is spent sitting. Reducing inactivity by increasing the time spent walking/standing is more effective than one hour of physical exercise, when energy expenditure is kept constant."
Getting consistent, low-impact exercise throughout the day can combat that creepy brain-shrinkage thing, and ward off a host of other health problems. Consider taking the stairs instead of the elevator, taking a short walk after lunch, and making sure you get up from your desk every few hours and walk around the office. Kind of like those mall walkers who stroll around suburban shopping malls in their track suits. Because, when you're 50, you'll be glad you took those walks — you might be more likely to remember where you put your car keys.