Work at a Desk? Study Shows Just 1 Minute of Squats Beats Brain Fatigue

Work at a Desk? Study Shows Just 1 Minute of Squats Beats Brain Fatigue

Sitting for too long can take a toll on your brain. Check out this 2023 study showing how short and simple exercise breaks can help to prevent the negative effects of prolonged sitting on cognitive function.

Exercise Breaks During Prolonged Sitting Supports Cognitive Performance

Sedentary behavior is associated with poorer cognitive performance and a higher risk of cognitive decline [1,2]. Prolonged sitting, which is common for anyone with a desk job, is one of the main contributors to sedentarism. Prolonged sitting has been shown to acutely impair cognitive function, namely executive function [3–5]. Executive function is the set of cognitive processes and mental skills underlying goal-directed behavior. It includes high-order cognitive abilities such as working memory, planning, reasoning, problem-solving, emotion regulation, inhibitory control (i.e., the ability to suppress a thought, action, or feeling), and cognitive flexibility (i.e., the ability to shift attention between tasks, attributes of a stimulus, strategies, etc) [6]. 

Prolonged sitting has been shown to acutely impair cognitive function, namely executive function.

The study divided a group of young adults (21±1 years old) into two groups that were both asked to sit for 3h; the difference between the groups was that one sat continuously for 3 h (the control group), whereas the other group did half-squats for 1 min every 20 min (the exercise group). Before and after sitting for 3h, participants’ executive function was determined using two widely used neurocognitive tests: the Color Word Stroop Test (CWST) and the Trail Making Test-B (TMT-B).

In the CWST, participants are presented with stimuli consisting of names of colors (red, blue, green, and yellow) shown in red, blue, green, and yellow hues. Participants are asked to identify the color of the hue as quickly as possible (by hitting a corresponding button). In congruent trials, the word and the hue are the same (e.g., the word “red” written in red); in incongruent trials, the word and ink color are different (e.g., the word “red” written in blue). The CWST assesses selective attention, response inhibition, and behavioral conflict resolution.

The Trail Making Test-B consists of 25 circles distributed over a sheet of paper that include numbers (1-13) and letters (A-L); participants are asked to draw lines to connect the circles as quickly as possible in an ascending pattern, alternating between the numbers and letters (i.e., 1-A-2-B-3-C, etc.). The TMT-B assesses task-switching ability, a measure of cognitive flexibility. 

Subjective feelings of arousal and measures of fatigue, concentration, and motivation were assessed with questionnaires. Global cerebral blood flow was measured at several time points of the sitting period via ultrasound in the right internal carotid artery (ICA) (which supplies most of the cerebral blood flow).

To perform the half-squats, participants crossed their arms across their chests, bent their knees to 90°, and returned to standing without stopping when their knees were fully bent (to avoid isometric muscle contraction). Participants performed 1 min of half-squats with calf raises between repetitions at a rate of 15 reps/min. 

Overall, the study showed that compared to uninterrupted sitting, exercise interruption suppressed reductions in cerebral blood flow and impairments in executive function induced by prolonged sitting.

Exercise interruption suppressed reductions in cerebral blood flow and impairments in executive function induced by prolonged sitting.

At the end of the 3h, the response times of the executive function tests were significantly better in the exercise group. For the CWST, in the congruent task, responses had gotten 1.5% slower in the control group that had been sitting constantly for 3h, but had gotten 5.5% faster in the exercise group; in the incongruent task, responses were 4.2% slower in the control group, but 3.5% faster in the exercise group. For the TMT-B test, completion times were 8.8% slower in the control group, but 10% faster in the exercise group. These are big differences in performance on these cognitive tests. 

After 3h of prolonged sitting, psychological variables worsened in both groups, but less so in the exercise group. Exercise suppressed decreases in concentration (-28.7% in the control group and -9.2% in the exercise group) and mental arousal (-23% for control and -1% in the exercise group) and reduced increases in mental fatigue (+285% for control and +157% for exercise); there were no significant effects of exercise on motivation, which decreased for both groups with time (19.4% on average).

Cerebral blood flow (CBF) was also significantly better in the exercise group. CBF volume through the ICA decreased on average by 3.7% in the control group and slightly increased by 0.3% in the exercise group. Similarly, CBF velocity decreased by 4.7% in the control group and only 0.2% in the exercise group. 

These results suggest that a simple strategy like intermittent half-squat exercises may not only prevent declines but also actually improve executive function during prolonged sitting, possibly by helping to maintain adequate cerebral blood flow. And, intermittent exercise may help counter some of the negative effects of prolonged sitting on focus and fatigue. This strategy can be easily implemented and may be particularly useful in settings where resources and time to exercise are very limited, such as the workplace.

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Referenced study: 

Horiuchi M, et al.  Effects of intermittent exercise during prolonged sitting on executive 8 function,  cerebrovascular  and  psychological  response:  A  randomized 9 cross-over trial. J Appl Physiol 2023, doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00437.2023


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[3]L. Stoner, Q. Willey, W.S. Evans, K. Burnet, D.P. Credeur, S. Fryer, E.D. Hanson, Effects of acute prolonged sitting on cerebral perfusion and executive function in young adults: A randomized cross-over trial, Psychophysiology. 56 (2019) e13457.
[4]B.C.R. Chrismas, L. Taylor, A. Cherif, S. Sayegh, D.P. Bailey, Breaking up prolonged sitting with moderate-intensity walking improves attention and executive function in Qatari females, PLoS One. 14 (2019) e0219565.
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[7]S.E. Carter, R. Draijer, S.M. Holder, L. Brown, D.H.J. Thijssen, N.D. Hopkins, Regular walking breaks prevent the decline in cerebral blood flow associated with prolonged sitting, J. Appl. Physiol. 125 (2018) 790–798.
[8]B. Sperlich, I. De Clerck, C. Zinner, H.-C. Holmberg, B. Wallmann-Sperlich, Prolonged Sitting Interrupted by 6-Min of High-Intensity Exercise: Circulatory, Metabolic, Hormonal, Thermal, Cognitive, and Perceptual Responses, Front. Physiol. 9 (2018) 1279.

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