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Incidental Physical Activity: Can Housework Make You Smarter?

A recent study investigates whether the activities of daily living, or incidental physical activity, can help to delay cognitive decline in older adults.

Numerous studies have shown that aerobic exercise can be beneficial for the preservation of various types of cognitive function as people age. However, these studies have primarily investigated the impact of structured physical activity (engaging in purposeful exercise each day) on cognition. On the other hand, incidental physical activity, which includes daily unstructured activities, such housework, daily commuting, and leisure activities, encompasses a far greater proportion of people’s lives. With this in mind, a research group in Mexico has recently published a paper in the PLoS ONE journal investigating whether differing levels of IPA can affect a person’s cognitive functions over time.

Measuring Physical Activity and Cognition

After recruiting 97 individuals aged 60 years and older who lacked any previous cognitive impairment, the researchers asked each participant to complete several questionnaires. The researchers used these questionnaires to assess various aspects of the participants’ lives, such as socioeconomic factors, or depression.

One such questionnaire was the Quality of Life Enjoyment and Satisfaction Questionnaire (Q-LES-Q), which measured several daily-functioning domains such as bodily health, job, housekeeping, leisure activities, and social relationships. To ensure similar cognitive functions, a battery of neuropsychological tests assessed factors such as memory, attention, and language and executive functions, among others.

The Yale Physical Activity Survey (YPAS) was then used to assess the incidental physical activity of each participant; this test includes questions on time spent engaging in either daily activities such as housekeeping, yard work, care-taking, and leisure, or even simply walking, sitting, and standing.

The participants then underwent a standardized IQ test, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-III-R), as well as an electroencephalography (EEG), which measured activity in different regions of the brain. Each patient also gave a blood sample to measure the various factors associated with cardiovascular health. Some of these factors include cholesterol, triglyceride and blood sugar levels. They also calculated body mass index. Using this information and the self-reported information on physical activity, it was then possible to use statistical analyses to determine whether links existed between the incidental physical activity level and the cognitive functions of each participant.

Incidental Physical Activity Significantly Affects Cognition

A high level of incidental physical activity was associated with significantly higher scores for cognitive functioning. The active group scored higher on several measures of cognition including performance IQ and processing speed. Additionally, the EEG results showed that the group with the higher incidental physical activity levels had greater activity in a number of different areas of the brain that are associated with greater cognitive function. This suggests that high levels of incidental physical activity may have a neuroprotective effect on people as they age. The benefit of this type of physical activity is further bolstered by the improved blood profiles displayed by the active group; markers of cardiovascular health such as blood sugar and cholesterol were found to be significantly lower in this group.

This study is somewhat limited by both the small sample size, as well as the self-reported nature of the information on incidental physical activity. However, great efforts were taken to statistically minimize any other potential variables. To truly assess the effects of this type of physical activity on cognition, a long-term study with a larger cohort of participants would be needed to track the effects on cognition over the course of a number of years. This study provides an important insight into life, that even mundane alterations to your lifestyle can lead to significant improvements in your quality of life as you age.

Written by Michael Healy, BSc, MSc

Reference: Sanchez-Lopez J, et al. High levels of incidental physical activity are positively associated with cognition and EEG activity in aging. PLoS One. 2018 Jan 25;13(1):e0191561. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0191561.



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