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Exercise Breaks Can Hurt Cognition

Slackers Undermine Information Processing & Memory

Exercise Breaks Can Hurt Cognition

By Sean Zucker –

Everyone has had the impulse to skip a workout in favor of something far less demanding that may, at least initially, seem more emotionally rewarding. Sure, it might be a leg or upper body day at the gym, but Netflix and some downtime on the couch sound much more appealing.

Unfortunately, it’s a bad idea to plop over regular exercise. It can have serious health drawbacks. New research suggests even a casual pause in activity might undermine brain function.

A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that bailing on exercise in favor of less demanding activities like sitting or lying down is linked to a decline in memory and thinking abilities. The research team initially used data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, an ongoing experiment that follows the lives of roughly 17,000 people born in England, Scotland and Wales during a week in 1970. They compiled the new findings from data on about 4,500 individuals who followed up between 2016 and 2018.

These repeat participants detailed their health and lifestyle before wearing an activity tracker for ten consecutive hours daily for up to one week. They have then prompted a series of tests to determine their ability to process and recall information. The aim was to establish a connection between physical activity and brain health.

The researchers discovered that, on average, participants logged 51 minutes of moderate or intense exercise, which involved anything that raised the heart rate. The subjects also averaged about six hours of light activity, such as walking. In contrast, there was nine hours of sedentary behavior, such as sitting or lying down.

The problems surfaced when participants skipped the exercise or light activity and chilled out. Those unusual breaks resulted in a 2-percent decrease in their ability to process and recall information.

“In most cases, we showed that as little as seven to ten minutes less MVPA (moderate to vigorous physical activity) was detrimental,” the study’s author John Mitchell told CNN.

The impact of these results may only be a matter of perspective. The team also tested the reverse hypothesis of how additional exercise may improve brain function.

“Even small amounts of time in more vigorous activities—as little as six to nine minutes—compared to sitting, sleeping or gentle activities had higher cognition scores,” Mitchell explained.

It seems obvious that inactivity undermines cognition, as many experts have long suspected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for one, supports the connection. According to the CDC, a brain workout involving physical activity helps someone think, learn and problem-solve. The organization also notes that regular exercise can encourage emotional stability while improving memory and reducing anxiety or depression.

More research is needed to judge the scope of the connection between cognitive health and activity. But Mitchell suggests this latest research is an important first step that should clear the way for deeper examinations.

“Given we don’t monitor participants’ cognition over many years, this may be that those individuals who move more tend to have higher cognition on average,” he said. “However, yes, it could also imply that even minimal changes to our daily lives can have downstream consequences for our cognition.”





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