As the world has sped up around us, our brain and the sedentary lifestyle risks have increased. Many of us are compromising our long-term health through lack of sleep, poor diet and no exercise. We choose to focus on only one part of our life that gives us our mental energy to keep ourselves healthy. Imagine a husband who focuses heavily on his career. He works twelve-hour days sitting in an office, only to come home stressed and unable to switch off. He doesn’t have time to exercise, he never gets a good night sleep, and his eating habits are poor. The effects build up over time, and he becomes burnt out, unable to maintain good mental energy. Short term, his career is excelling. Deadlines are met, with countless overtime hours, and he has a satisfied boss. But how sustainable is this?
Long term, the mental energy endured in the fast-paced, sedentary lifestyle catches up. Mental health and physical health becomes compromised, where being able to function effectively is limited. So what can we do about it?
Sedentary Lifestyle Risk #1: Getting Enough Sleep
We spend a third of our lives asleep. During this time, our brain is active and works hard to help us rest and recover. When we go to bed, stressed and unable to switch off, our brain works overtime to relax, causing us to become restless and unable to get a decent sleep. The benefits of a good night sleep are apparent: better focus, increased energy, better physical health and sharper concentration. Our brain chemicals control whether we’re asleep or awake. When we feel tired, two main transmitters help us get to sleep: melatonin and adenosine.
Melatonin: This chemical is released when our environment gets dark. The build-up of melatonin makes us feel drowsy. It’s why our sleep can be interrupted when the room is dark, and there’s a light on from an electronic device.
Adenosine: Adenosine accumulates when we’re awake. The more we have, the sleepier we feel. Sleep lowers our adenosine levels, but any residual adenosine in our body makes us tired when we don’t get enough of it. Additionally, caffeine interferes in our adenosine levels as well. Extra caffeine gives us energy as opposed to letting our adenosine levels naturally accumulate. It’s why we have a caffeine crash after drinking a few coffees.
One of our brain’s most critical purposes while sleeping is to clear itself from all the toxins that build up throughout the day. Our brains cleaning system is known as the glymphatic system, which involves the flow of cerebrospinal fluid. When we sleep, this fluid moves more quickly throughout the brain, causing a more effective flush out of toxins. Getting enough sleep each day is one of the most important things you can do for your productivity, physical body and mental state.
Sedentary Lifestyle Risk #2: Physical Activity
Quite often, we sit for longer than we sleep. We sit in an office for eight hours a day, where the only break is a short talk to lunch. A study found that those who were sedentary for more than 23 hours a week had a 64% increase of dying from heart disease than those inactive for less than 11 hours a week. The average working week is 40 hours. Considering an hour lunch break where we may be more active, it still leaves the average office worker sitting down for 28 hours a week. To neutralize the effect of a sedentary lifestyle, we need to make sure we are active every half an hour. It can be as little as moving our muscles and taking a walk around the office. By doing this, our fat-burning enzymes can reduce by 90%.
The brain is like every other muscle in our body, where it needs repetition and practice to grow. While mental activities are suitable for the mind, so is physical exercise. Exercise reduces inflammation and stimulates the chemicals produced that maintain the health and survival of our brain cells. It releases endorphins, which increase our body temperature. The calming effect it has helps our cortisol levels to drop, and our stress levels to decrease.
Physical exercise is one of the most important things we can do to reduce sedentary lifestyle risks. I find when I exercise, I am much more productive throughout the day. I sleep better at night, my mental health and mood become managed, and I feel stronger for it. Here are some exercise guidelines that I use:
Moderate exercise: riding a stationary bike, skipping, brisk walking, slow light jog, active stretching
Vigorous Exercise: Boxing, sprints, running, basketball, high-intensity sports
Bodyweight Exercise: push-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, plank
Weights: bench press, deadlift, squats, bent over row
Flexibility: resistance band, static stretches, dynamic stretching
Sedentary Lifestyle Risk #3: Nutrition and Lifestyle
Our food choices affect our daily health, how we feel tomorrow and how we feel in the future. Balanced nutrition is vital in leading a healthy lifestyle. By combining our nutrition with physical activity, we perform better each day, promoting our overall health. When I was in year five, my teacher allowed us to eat in class. She would tell us to bring brain food, where only specific food items were allowed. Carrots, celery, capsicum, berries and bananas were at the top of the list. She allowed this to promote a productive day in the classroom and to strengthen our memories.
Studies have shown that particular nutrients influence our cognitive abilities and protect our brain from damage. Our daily interaction with our diet and exercise can alter our brain health and mental function at a higher capacity. Brain networks associated with the control of the food we put in our body closely connect with processing our emotions, rewards and perceptions.
Change Your Lifestyle
Decreasing our sedentary lifestyle risks doesn’t happen overnight. While it’s easy to walk more or develop an active hobby, the real work starts in our daily habits. Here are four steps to change your lifestyle and move forward in the right direction.
#1. Ask yourself what behaviour you currently do lead you to an unhealthy choice you want to change.
#2. Start with one habit and give yourself time to notice what causes the brain to make these decisions.
#3. Only so much willpower is used in a day before your body and brain become tired.
#4. Focus on one small behaviour before moving to the next.