How getting off the sofa can reduce your risk of dementia

A new study shows that sitting for ten hours a day or more can increase the risk of dementia, so take some simple steps and get moving.

If you’d like to spend less time on the sofa, a new study might give you the motivation you need – as it’s found that sitting down for more than ten hours a day increases your risk of dementia.

In the study of nearly 50,000 people aged 60 or over across England, Scotland and Wales, participants used wearable technology to track their movements. The average time spent sitting or lying down (not including sleeping) was just over nine hours a day. Their results were then analysed by researchers from the University of South Carolina and University of Arizona, who found that the risk of dementia was increased for those who were sedentary for ten or more hours a day.

It also showed that sedentary periods are just as bad for you whether they span several hours or are broken up by regular breaks. So if you have the urge to stretch your legs during Homes Under The Hammer, the message is clear: do it for longer and spend less time on the sofa.

Man lifting grandchildCredit: Shutterstock / Prostock-studio

A good reason to move around more

None of the over-60s who took part in the study had dementia when it started, but after a follow-up period of six years, 414 cases were recorded. After taking into account other lifestyle characteristics such as diet, smoking, alcohol use and mental health, the risk of a lot of sitting down became clear. Ten hours of sedentary time was linked to an 8% increase in dementia risk, while 12 hours was linked to a 63% increase, and 15 hours was linked to a huge 321% increase.

Gene Alexander, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Arizona, who was one of the study authors, said: “We were surprised to find that the risk of dementia begins to rapidly increase after ten hours spent sedentary each day, regardless of how the sedentary time was accumulated.

“This suggests that it is the total time spent sedentary that drove the relationship between sedentary behaviour and dementia risk, but importantly lower levels of sedentary behaviour, up to around ten hours, were not associated with increased risk.”

So the new research is good news for those of us who spend a few hours a day sitting down, as well as people who are always on the go. And you can make simple changes to lower your dementia risk if you think you spend too much time sitting down.

The NHS recommends that adults aged 65 and over should aim to be physically active every day, focusing on improving strength, balance and flexibility on at least two of those days. Take a look at our pick of the best Joe Wicks workouts, which you can do at home.

It also recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity each week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity, such as running, swimming or singles tennis. And if you’re already active, you can combine both. Always check with your GP if you have any health conditions or concerns – or if you haven’t exercised for a long time.

Man lying on sofa watching computer with headphones onCredit: Shutterstock / A.Azarnikova

Easy ways to spend less time sitting down

Kate Rowe-Ham, founder of Owning Your Menopause, gives her tips to live a less sedentary life, whatever your current fitness level.

What if I’m a gym-goer, but I sit around the rest of the time?

“Try and factor in three 15-minute bursts of movement into your day. A recent study said that walking between 6,000 and 10,000 steps per day is beneficial if you’re over 60.

“I worked out that if you’re going at a good pace, you can get 1,500 to 2,000 steps done in 15 minutes, so create that window of opportunity. You might want to stay out for longer once you get going, and you can spice up these intervals by adding hand weights.”

But I hate the gym and love a Netflix binge on the sofa

“How do you want to live? Is it feeling mobile and strong or accepting a sedentary lifestyle? We’re living longer and I often envisage how I want to feel in 20 or 30 years for motivation. 

“If you really want to sit and watch Netflix, incorporate walking on the spot. Break down 6,000 steps a day and it becomes achievable, then you can build on that. Any movement around the house is good for you. Every time you move to put the kettle on, take an extra walk around the room or pop out into the garden.”

And what if I’ve got a twinge and prefer to sit on the sofa?

“If you’ve been advised to rest, then do it. But if you’ve had advice and guidance from your GP that movement is going to help with aches and pains and it doesn’t hurt when you’re moving, then you can. Once you get started, the synovial fluid will lubricate your joints and the more you move, the stronger and more flexible you’ll become.

“When you think of the word ‘exercise’, some people who aren’t keen on it might imagine a sweaty mess, but light movement around the house is good for you too. Look at functional movements: vacuuming, gardening, carrying the washing up and down the stairs, folding the ironing and squeezing your core at the same time all create mobility. Housework does count.”

My mobility is not great, so can I do anything sitting down?

“Walking while sitting down is a good start: sit back into your chair and lift alternate knees. 

“Resistance bands are great for building muscle strength. Put one around the top of your toe, then bend and flex to improve ankle mobility. You could also put a band under your foot and do a bicep curl for stronger arms.

Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier


Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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