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Too Much Sitting Is As Bad For The Brain As It Is For The Body

We all know that sitting too much is probably one of the worst thing you can do for your health. But did you know that it’s also bad for your brain?

Well according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE, it is. 

Researchers from UCLA report that sitting doesn’t just put you at risk for physical problems but neurological problems too.1

According to the study, areas of the brain associated with memory show signs of thinning in people that are more sedentary. What’s more, even high levels of exercise don’t seem to undo the negative effects of too much sitting. 

The team from UCLA looked at how sitting and exercise affect the thickness of a person’s medial temporal lobe. This area and its sub-regions are associated with memory formation. 

During the study, participants between the ages of 45 and 75, were instructed to answer questions about how much sitting they had done on average over the past week and how much exercise they got, including whether it was low, medium or high intensity. 

All of the participants were also tested for the “Alzheimer’s gene” variants (APOE) and physical measurements were taken. 

Next, they scanned each of their brains using an MRI to measure the thickness of the regions in the medial temporal lobe. 

What they found was that the more time a person spent sitting, the less thickness they had in the medial temporal lobe, and the areas associated with it, including the entorhinal cortex, the parahippocampal cortex, and the subiculum. 

However, the researchers were surprised to find that exercise did not correlate with increased thickness in these regions. This suggested that exercise doesn’t appear to “make-up” for any of the damage. 

According to the study’s authors, “it is possible that sedentary behavior is a more significant predictor of brain structure, specifically [medial temporal lobe] thickness, and that physical activity, even at higher levels, is not sufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods of time.” 

The APOE status of each participant also didn’t seem to seem to affect thickness in any of the regions studied. 

The findings in this study are important for several reasons. For one, sedentary behavior is known to be a risk factor or Alzheimer’s disease. 

The UCLA teams even made reference to the fact that earlier studies have calculated that as many as 13% of Alzheimer’s cases may be due to a person’s inactivity, and by just reducing sedentary behavior by as little as 25% they could reduce the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease by as many as one million cases across the world.

Previous studies have also alluded to the fact that the more a person sits the worse their cognitive performance becomes, which may be a sign of existing brain changes.2

That’s why this UCLA study is so interesting because it ties together the neurological changes that may explain these connections. 

In addition, it makes the suggestion that simply reducing the time each day a person sits may have profound effects on brain health and potentially may be more effective than simply increasing the amount of exercise they get. This goes for both physical health and brain health. 

So why exactly is sitting so detrimental to the brain?

According to researchers, there are a number of potential mechanisms, including an overall decrease in the birth of new neurons, decreased levels of plasticity and higher levels of inflammation.

And while all of these factors are known to be enhanced with exercise, the fact that in this study exercise didn’t appear to reverse the effects of sitting, is quite interesting.   

Finally, several studies have linked a sedentary lifestyle to a variety of health issues, including heart disease, cancer and even early death. 

Even The American Heart Association, warns against sitting too much. Their tagline “Sit less, move more”, sums it up nicely. 

Apparently the same can be said for brain health. 

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References:

1. Siddarth, Prabha et al. "Sedentary Behavior Associated With Reduced Medial Temporal Lobe Thickness In Middle-Aged And Older Adults." PLOS ONE 13.4 (2018): e0195549.

2. Falck, Ryan S, Jennifer C Davis, and Teresa Liu-Ambrose. "What Is The Association Between Sedentary Behaviour And Cognitive Function? A Systematic Review." British Journal of Sports Medicine 51.10 (2016): 800-811.

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