The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
Are you sitting comfortably?
Then stop it, says Caroline Williams. Our sedentary lifestyles are making us dim, sad and anti-social – so get moving before it’s too late
It shouldn’t be news by now that most of us aren’t moving anywhere near enough, myself included. After walking the dog for an hour in the morning, my working day mostly involves sitting at a desk and moving no further than the kitchen for multiple cups of tea. If he’s lucky, the dog gets another wander through the woods, and on some days I do yoga, but more often than not weekday evenings involve yet more sitting, followed by eight hours in bed. Statistically, my life isn’t all that unusual. The average adult spends 70 per cent of their life sitting or lying completely still; we move about 30 per cent less than our counterparts in the 1960s. Children spend up to 50 per cent of their free time sitting around, and that’s before you factor all those hours bent over a school desk. Elderly people, unsurprisingly, clock up even more hours of stillness, spending up to 80 per cent of their waking day barely moving a muscle.
cut the numbers, the message is the same: move more, and your brain will thank you in the long run.
Given our collective propensity for lolling around, it is perhaps more alarming than surprising that our sedentary ways may be affecting IQ at a population level, making humankind as a whole just a little bit less smart. IQ scores had, until recently, been rising by an average of 3 points a decade, for as long as people had been taking IQ tests and in countries all over the world. The trend is named the Flynn effect, after the New Zealand-based psychologist James Flynn, who first documented it back in the 1980s.
Soon afterwards, however, from the mid-1990s onwards, the Flynn effect started to slow down, and by the early 2000s the trend was running in reverse, at the rate of a few points per decade.
This can’t be down to changes in genetic fitness – evolution doesn’t work that fast, and certainly not for complex traits such as intelligence, where variation is explained not by one gene but many. It is much more likely that the changes can be explained by changes in the environment. Or, perhaps, by the way we choose to use it. A lack of movement isn’t the only change in our lifestyles in recent years, but there is no doubt that the descent to seatedness is an important social change that has been creeping up on us for some time.
If you’re the kind of person who diligently hits the gym every day, you are probably feeling pretty smug right now. But there’s a catch: exercise – at least the way we think of it, as something to do in earnest between long periods of sitting – is not the way to turn things around. Brain imaging studies show that there is a correlation between the thickness of brain regions involved in memory and the amount of time a person spends sitting, regardless of whether or not they also do high-intensity exercise at some point during the day.
And while mood and focus do spike briefly after a period of exercise, overall it doesn’t matter if you go for broke for an hour in your lunchtime spinning class. The effects of sitting still for the four hours either side of lunch don’t go away.
In fact, you could argue that bingeexercising is missing the point of movement entirely. In her book Move Your DNA, the movement guru Katy Bowman makes exactly this point. She says that exercising in short bursts, or to target certain muscles, is a bit like taking vitamin supplements to try and offset an unhealthy diet.
I would argue that movement is at least as important for our mental, cognitive and emotional health as it is for our physical well-being. Moving our bodies in certain characteristically human ways (see panel) connects us to the equally fundamentally human ways that we think, feel and make sense of the world that’s both around us and within.
The important thing to know is that, as a society, we’re not moving enough, and what little we are doing we are mostly doing wrong. That’s the bad news. And here comes the good: whether you want to learn better, slow brain ageing, spark new ideas or just feel more in control of your mental health, there is almost nothing that moving more can’t help you to achieve. Body movements can serve as a shortcut to changing the ways we think and feel. This is a big deal: contrary to received wisdom, thoughts don’t only come from inside our heads, and thoughts are not the only routes to emotions.
Some kinds of body movement help to reduce inflammation – a modernday scourge linked to everything from depression to chronic pain. Others hijack the brain-body stress pathways in ways that help dial down feelings of anxiety and instil a visceral sense of confidence. Others change the way that electrical information flows through the brain, directly affecting our mental state. Move right and the body becomes an extension to and an equal partner of the brain – not just the meat suit that carries it around.
Ultimately, whether you are looking for more brain power, to feel more connected to others or just to be more in control of your life, the message from all corners of science is coming through loud and clear: this is no time to be sitting around.
‘Exercising in short bursts is a bit like taking vitamin supplements to offset an unhealthy diet’