Oh, dear. You might want to take this piece of news, well, standing up. To pile atop all that research that says sitting down all day is basically as bad as picking up a smoking habit, sitting is apparently bad for your mental health, too — and not just your levels of contentment or stress, either. According to new research, all that time you spend at your desk could be affecting your memory.
Before you freak TF out and quit your job to save your health, take a breath, and let's walk through what actually went down in this study: Researchers from UCLA set out to observe the ways in which a sedentary lifestyle (in other words, a lifestyle in which you spend a lot of time sitting down) influences a person's brain health — specifically, how your brain stores new memories. The 35 participants in the study, who were all between the ages of 45 and 75, were asked about their physical activity levels, as well as the average number of hours a day they'd spent sitting down during the week prior to the study. Each participant also had an MRI scan done so that researchers could study their brain activity, particularly in a region called the medial temporal lobe (the MTL), which is vital to forming new memories.
According to the study's findings, the more time someone spent sitting, the easier it was to predict the weakening or thinning of this memory-focused part of the brain.
What's more, the researchers found, even if someone tries to balance out all that sitting with, say, HIIT classes, or lots of walking, that's still, apparently, not enough to prevent these long-term changes in your brain.
I know this all sounds like terrible news, but there are a few things to consider here. For one thing, this is a preliminary study, meaning the researchers have acknowledged that a) these results don't represent hard-and-fast proof that sitting is the actual, direct cause of weakened areas in the brain, and b) that more research needs to be done on the subject. For now, these findings basically just show that these thinner brain structures seem to have some type of correlation with sedentary lifestyles.
Additionally, the researchers pointed out that they didn't ask any of the participants how often they took breaks, if at all, throughout their days, which is a potentially important factor in the relationship between the health of your brain and how much time you spend sitting each day. Bottom line: This is likely the first of many studies by these particular researchers on this specific subject, so time will tell if these findings are worth investing in a standing desk.
For what it's worth, though, this isn't the first time a study has found a link between poor mental health and a sedentary lifestyle.
For instance, a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at the connection between sitting all day and depressive symptoms in a huge group of nearly 9,000 women, all of whom were in their 50s. The researchers found that middle-aged women who sat for seven hours a day or more were at a much greater risk of depression than those who did not. This study also showed that reducing sitting time and increasing physical activity were effective ways to combat these mental health symptoms.
What's more, a 2014 study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity, which included over 3,000 employed participants, showed that those who reported sitting for more than six hours a day were significantly more distressed psychologically than those who didn't sit for such long periods of time. Moreover, these researchers concluded that, even if those who sat for several hours a day went to the gym regularly, it didn't effectively counteract the negative impact that sitting could have on overall mental well-being.
But no, that doesn't mean you should stop exercising, y'all; it simply means we all need to find ways to stop sitting so much during the day! Take your breaks, my friends — walk around the office, go out for that midafternoon coffee, and don't forget to stretch. Your head will thank you for it!