How Sitting Harms Your Brain and Overall Health

woman sitting at a desk

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Our sedentary lifestyle is not doing us any favors. Sitting for long periods of time at a desk might not only be affecting our waistline and adding on the pounds to our scale. We are sitting in front of our computers, scrolling on social media longer, and watching hours of our favorite Netflix shows. And prolonged sitting is adversely affecting our bodies and our brain health.

This article looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic influenced sedentary behavior, how sitting harms your overall health, and what you can do to alleviate issues brought on by sitting too much.

The Pandemic Has Made People More Sedentary

Our embrace of exercise has slowed down during the pandemic. In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, scientists explored people’s lack of enthusiasm for exercise during the COVID lockdown. Sleep patterns changed, mental fatigue set in and fear, anxiety, and stress were rampant.

We know that many suffered from brain fog and the sense that their brains were sluggish, fuzzy, and unable to focus. Others grappled with mental health challenges. In combination, many factors took a toll on people’s energy levels and ability to go outside for a run or walk.

It was difficult to adhere to fitness and exercise routines when there was so much uncertainty during the pandemic. According to this study’s results, people increased their time spent sitting by a whopping 28%.

Due to technology, adults and children both had already become more sedentary before the pandemic. Everyone was using screens more at home, school, and work. During the pandemic and even now, these sedentary behaviors have transformed into a dangerously sedentary lifestyle.

Why Is Sitting Harmful?

Our physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyle have become a global epidemic. When we spend most of our time sitting or lying down, our leg muscles are not working. As the largest muscles in our body, they are now taking in minimal fuel from the bloodstream. These muscles then are not releasing substances that break down fatty acids in our blood.

As a result, the metabolism slows and the regulation of blood sugar is affected. These metabolic changes result in an increase in sugar and cholesterol in the bloodstream. This translates into a greater risk for diabetes and heart disease. 

How Does Sitting Influence Brain Health?

While we know activity and movement are important, fewer research studies have focused on the effects of sedentary behaviors than on the effects of exercise. UCLA-lead scientists emphasized this in their study on the health of the brain.

While previous studies have been done on the impact of exercise on the brain, there’s little research on the relationship between sedentary behavior and dementia risk. So, these researchers at UCLA sought to find out how sedentary behavior influences brain health, especially in regions of the brain that are critical to memory formation.

In this recent preliminary study, scientists found that more time spent sitting was linked to thinning of the brain’s medial temporal lobe. This region is critical to memory formation.

The team focused on the medial temporal lobe because this area of the brain declines with age and that leads to memory impairment. Important to note, physical activity was insufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for prolonged periods of time.

How to Improve Your Overall Health

The answer to changing your everyday sedentary ways in a nutshell? Little spurts of standing up, mini-workouts, and adding more movement, even through daily activities.

Stand More

Standing more might help contribute to your living a healthier, disease-free life. It might help prevent chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, too.

In a Finnish collaborative study of Turku PET Centre and UKK institute, researchers investigated the associations between insulin resistance, sedentary behavior and physical activity in inactive adults who had an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Researchers found that standing is associated with better insulin sensitivity. These findings suggest replacing sitting time with standing, especially if physical activity requirements can’t be met.

The findings were published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. Insulin sensitivity is directly related to one of America’s biggest chronic health problems: diabetes. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that over 34 million Americans have diabetes. Between 90% and 95% of those with diabetes have type 2 diabetes.

Because thinning in this area of the brain can be a precursor to cognitive decline and dementia in middle-aged and older adults, this preliminary study gives cause for concern. It shows, nevertheless, that we should pay attention to mitigating sedentary behavior whether or not we exercise.

Reducing sedentary behavior can prove a way to improve brain health, especially for people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Exercise More

While we might have been acquainted with the range of health advantages that accrued for our bodies after we participated in sports or exercise, as a result of renewed attention in the media during the pandemic, many of us became better informed about exercise’s positive impact on mental health, too. For example, we learned about the benefits of exercise for mental conditions like panic disorder and anxiety.

If you couldn’t squeeze in an hour at the gym and were busy taking care of children or caregiving your elderly parents during the pandemic, you’ll be pleased to learn that it doesn’t take much to decrease your time spent sitting and improve your overall health now.

Move Three Minutes Every 30 minutes

In a study published in the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden looked at what happened if office workers interrupted their sitting time over three weeks in their workplace.

The results showed that volunteers who stood and moved while at work “showed lower fasting blood sugar levels in the morning, meaning their bodies better controlled blood sugar during the night…and their blood sugar also stabilized during the day.”

These improvements weren’t monumental and were slight. Researchers conclude getting at least 15 steps or moving three minutes every half hour could be the bare minimum of what you should do.  

Even so, you can at least slow down the harmful effects of so much sitting and improve your metabolic health. Study authors say the cumulative effect of adhering to a 3:30 strategy could help you avoid type 2 diabetes. 

How to Add Movement and Activities

A growing body of evidence suggests that a sedentary lifestyle can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases as well adversely affect your brain health. Therefore, while it might be hard to get up in the middle of a meeting or project, use an app or cell phone alarm to remind you.

Whether you move three minutes every half hour by walking to the bathroom or strolling around the corner to get a coffee, movement of any kind is helpful.

Simple Ways to Add Movement to Your Daily Life

Here are some ways you can add more movement to your daily routine:

  • Park further away from the store entrance in the parking lot
  • Take a break every commercial while watching tv
  • Garden more
  • Instead of taking the elevator to work, climb the stairs
  • Stand up and do a bunch of jumping jacks
  • While you’re on the phone, walk around
  • Dance to your favorite tune
  • Walk on your lunch break
  • Do a few lunges or push-ups
  • Jump rope
  • Do calisthenics (body-weight strength training)
  • Clean the area around you
  • Use a fitness tracker
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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Siddarth P, Burggren AC, Eyre HA, Small GW, Merrill DA. Sedentary behavior associated with reduced medial temporal lobe thickness in middle-aged and older adults. PLOS ONE. 2018.

  3. Garthwaite T, et al. Standing is associated with insulin sensitivity in adults with metabolic syndrome. JSAMS. 2021.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Type 2 Diabetes. Updated August 10, 2021.

  5. Smith JAB, Savikj M, Sethi P, et al. Three weeks of interrupting sitting lowers fasting glucose and glycemic variability, but not glucose tolerance, in free-living women and men with obesityAm J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2021;321(2):E203-E216. doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00599.2020

  6. Dictionary.com. Calisthenics: Definition.