Engage Your Heart and Brain, Even When You're Sitting

Sitting too Much is Bad for Health
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The dangers of too much sitting are increasingly clear. Research regularly links a sedentary lifestyle (especially long, uninterrupted bouts of sitting) to higher risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, brain shrinkage, muscle loss, poor posture, back pain, and premature death. That's bad news, whether you sit a lot because of work, travel, fatigue, illness, or a simple love of lounging.

While it's best to stay active throughout your day (get up and move every 30 minutes, if possible), there are ways to make your sit time a little healthier.


One way to boost the health of your sit time is by keeping your brain active. "In an active brain, neurons [brain cells] fire vigorously and form new connections. Greater numbers of connections translate to greater brain reserve, or 'back-up' cells, if the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer's disease start to form," says Dr. Andrew Budson, chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the VA Boston Healthcare System.

Passive activities, like watching TV, have the opposite effect on the brain. "Neurons fire only weakly, and new connections aren't being made," Dr. Budson says. "Increasing evidence suggests that with the brain, it's use it or lose it."

For example, a large study published online Aug. 22, 2022, by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that people who spent a lot of time sitting and watching TV seemed to have higher risks for dementia than people who spent a lot of time sitting and using a computer, regardless of their physical activity levels. This doesn't mean watching TV is necessarily unhealthy; instead, it probably means there isn't much on TV that truly engages our minds.


To keep your brain active while you're sitting, consider turning off the TV sometimes and doing any of the following.

Expand your horizons. Read a book on a new subject, listen to new types of music, or learn a new language. There are many free smartphone apps to get you started.

Play a game. Play cards or a board game with friends, or play word games on an app or with pen and paper. "Don't play the same game too long. Keep challenging your brain," Dr. Budson says.

Get something on paper. Write a poem for a friend, type a story for your grandkids, draw a picture and color it in, or paint with watercolors. It doesn't have to be an award winner. Just let your creativity flow.

Take up a new hobby. Try your hand at a hobby that's suited to sitting. Ideas include knitting, crocheting, needlepoint, cross-stitch, model building, or leatherworking. There are many starter kits available online.

Visit with friends. "Face-to-face interactions, even when sitting, engage the brain and promote new brain cell connections," Dr. Budson says.

Make some music. Play an instrument if you have one. Learn a new song or come up with your own, even a short one.

Make sure to vary the activities you do while you're parked in a chair or on the couch. "Varied challenges, especially new ones, make the brain work harder, which keeps it healthier," Dr. Budson says.


Another way to boost the health of your sit time is by exercising... while sitting. Yes, it really is possible to do an effective aerobic workout (the kind that gets your heart and lungs working) from a seated position. "Doing a series of moves with your arms and legs -- such as arm circles, air punches, leg lifts, and marching or stepping -- will increase your heart rate and get your blood flowing. The key is sustaining the activities for 10, 20, or 30 minutes," says Janice McGrail, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

What makes a good aerobic workout when you're seated? "Anything that motivates you to move," McGrail says. "It could be a calisthenics routine or it could be a seated boxing workout. There are seated dance routines choreographed to many kinds of music, including disco, country, and even polkas."

From a seated position you can also do strengthening exercises using dumbbells (such as biceps curls), resistance bands (such as rowing movements), or your body weight (such as leg lifts that you hold for five seconds). These exercises make your muscles stronger and help you control blood sugar and metabolism (how fast your body burns fuel).

While seated, you can also do stretching exercises on most of the major muscle groups -- such as the neck, shoulders, arms, and legs -- to keep them long, supple, and less prone to injury.

And all exercise -- whether it's aerobic activity, strengthening, or stretching -- helps the body maintain good health. It wards off chronic disease (such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes), keeps your muscles and bones strong, improves balance, helps control mood and weight, promotes better sleep, and thereby protects your independence. It also protects your brain. "Exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells, and boosts memory and blood flow to the brain," Dr. Budson says.


To find free seated workout videos, check YouTube. Search for the kind of exercise that interests you and see if there's a seated version (such as "seated line dancing workout"). It's best to follow a workout from a reliable source, such as a university, Silver Sneakers (a health and fitness program partnered with Medicare), a certified personal trainer, or a physical therapist.

To do a seated workout of any kind, take the same careful approach as you would with any workout. "Use a stable chair, such as a dining chair. Wear socks and sneakers to protect your feet. Start with a warm-up of slow movements for a few minutes before your workout, and then do a cool-down of slow movements after your workout," McGrail says.

Finally, remember that the best workout is the one you'll do regularly. Aim for 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, plus daily stretching, and strengthening at least two times per week.


This article was originally published on Harvard Health Letter.

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