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Desk Jobs and Your Brain

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We’ve been hearing it for a long time:  desk jobs increase risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and all things bad due to the extra sedentary time.  In a study which seems to offer us desk workers a glimmer of hope that each time we clock in to work we aren’t harming as health as badly as if we chain-smoked cigarettes all day, it turns out there may be a neuroprotective benefit for desk jobs.

               Researchers focused on how cognition is affected by time spent working at a desk.  The University of Cambridge recruited 8,585 adult men and women to investigate how their physical activity patterns affected their cognition.  The participants were aged 40-79 and had various jobs, education, and economic backgrounds.

               The study began with a health questionnaire which detailed what type of physical activity the participants engaged in both at work and outside of work, including any leisure time with physical activities.  They followed with a medical exam and were brought back in after 12 years had elapsed for tests designed to measure cognitive capabilities.  

               Among the cognitive tests were memory tests, reading ability, visual processing, and attention.  The results were surprising—physical activity and cognition were not linked in the way the researchers expected.  Regardless of education, they found that people who had less active jobs (mostly desk or office jobs, but more generally just jobs that require less movement) actually scored better at the cognitive tests.  Those people who had office jobs for the entirety of the 12 year time period of the study were in the top 10% of cognitive performance.

               When compared to physically active jobs (such as manual jobs, construction, industries), they found that the risk of poor cognition increased by 3-times.  Some reasons the researchers cite as an explanation is that those who have physically active jobs for work during the day are more likely to be less active after they get home.

               The study pointed to a need for further research to determine what combination of physical activity provides the greatest cognitive protection (such as working a desk job and being active outside of work or vice versa).  For now, it still remains important to get physical activity for all the physical reasons we know about, such as lowering disease risk, improving mental and psychological well-being, and strengthening the immune system. 

Perhaps there is a silver lining to desk jobs after all?  My posture isn’t so sure!


Hayat, SA et al. Cross-sectional and prospective relationship between occupational and leisure time inactivity and cognitive function in an ageing populationInternational Journal of Epidemiology, 2020 DOI: 10.17863/CAM.51130


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