This Is What Your Couch Potato Lifestyle Is Doing to Your Brain

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Fear can be a fabulous motivator.

Want to quit smoking? Imagine the inside of your lungs. Want to study harder? Picture working menial jobs for the rest of your life. Want to start regularly hitting the gym? Just read a new study that delves into what your couch potato lifestyle is doing to your brain.

After years of nagging about weight loss and heart disease, most of us have grown pretty immune to yet another warning about the health costs of no exercise. But this latest research is different — it didn’t ask what laziness does to your body, but what it does to your brain. And what it found is fairly shocking.

Just ten days to a weaker brain.

For the study the research team rounded up 12 seasoned athletes over the age of 50 — the kind of “master athletes,” in the researchers’ terminology, who spend at least four hours a week running at a fast pace. The fittest of the fit among older adults, in other words. Then they simply asked these fitness freaks to sit around and do nothing for ten days.

At the end of this period of enforced sloth, the older athletes’ brains were scanned to determine the effects of their short bout of laziness. The effects were startling, reports Derek Beres, author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body for Optimal Health, on Big Think.

“Resting for just ten days proved to slow regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in eight different brain regions,” he writes. “Most notably, blood flow slowed to both the left and right hippocampus, a region necessary for memory formation, storage, and retrieval.” (You can check out the complete post for a lot more scientific detail.)

That means that even if you’re in peak physical form and you stop exercising for less than two weeks, your brain will register significant negative effects, and could be already a few steps down the road to decreased memory function.

Caveats and takeaways

It’s important to note that this is a very small study and the authors themselves call for further research into the findings. They also note that 10-days of couch sitting caused no decline in apparent cognitive function — participants weren’t measurably dumber or more forgetful after their 10-day exercise ban. Still, as Beres asks, “What if you stopped exercising for ten months? Ten years? We can speculate that cognitive functioning, especially as it relates to an ability to form and retrieve memories, would be negatively affected.”

The takeaway for those struggling to move as much as they know they should is a new and straightforward motivation technique. Next time you’re struggling to leave your warm bed or comfy couch to lace up your gym shoes, just picture your brain being slowly squeezed of the blood flow that it needs to perform at its peak and possibly starting to wither. Maybe that will do the trick for you.