Cambridge scientists just made an amazing discovery about desk jobs and your health

People who work desk-based, office jobs usually worry that they aren’t doing their bodies any favors by sitting down for roughly eight hours five days per week. Now, though, a new long-term study from the University of Cambridge has discovered a major potential benefit to working in an office.

According to the research, people who work in job environments that don’t require lots of physical activity (such as any desk-based or office position) are at a lower risk of developing mental decline/poor cognition later on in life than individuals working in more physically demanding fields. 

So, while it’s still a good idea for office workers to get up and stretch their legs at least once per hour, this study suggests desk-based work isn’t all bad when it comes to long-term health outcomes.

These findings provide further insight into the complex relationship between physical activity and cognition. For quite some time it’s been established that a complete lack of exercise can raise one’s risk of mental decline, memory problems, and concentration issues. At the same time, however, no research project has been able to prove that tons of exercise protects against mental decline either. The amount of grey area between those two extremes prompted the team at Cambridge to launch this investigation.

“The often-used mantra ‘what is good for the heart, is good for the brain’ makes complete sense, but the evidence on what we need to do as individuals can be confusing,” says Shabina Hayat from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge, in a release. “With our large cohort of volunteers, we were able to explore the relationship between different types of physical activity in a variety of settings.”

In all, a group of 8,500 participants (both men and women) took part in the research, all from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and educational levels. At the beginning of the study, all participants were aged between 40 and 79 years old. Specifically, researchers set out to separate physical activity or exercise engaged in for a job as opposed to exercising for leisure. The idea being that these distinctions may produce different cognitive outcomes later in life.

Each participant filled out a survey asking about their typical levels of physical activity, both in their free time and on the job. Physical health examinations were also administered. Then, after an average of 12 years, each participant was asked to visit the research team once again and undergo a series of cognition tests (memory, visual processing speed, & a reading test intended to estimate IQ).

A subsequent analysis of all the collected data revealed several findings. To start, researchers found that people with fewer or no work qualifications are more likely to work physically demanding jobs but also less likely to exercise in their free time.

The study’s most noteworthy conclusion was probably that, regardless of one’s education level, a desk-based job was associated with a lower risk of poor cognition later in life. Study participants who remained in an office job for the full duration of the follow-up period were most likely to score in the top 10% of administered cognition tests. Similarly, participants who were working in manual labor jobs were nearly three times more likely to experience mental decline compared to desk-based workers.

“Our analysis shows that the relationship between physical activity and cognitive is not straightforward. While regular physical activity has considerable benefits for protection against many chronic diseases, other factors may influence its effect on future poor cognition,” Hayat explains. “People who have less active jobs – typically office-based, desk jobs – performed better at cognitive tests regardless of their education. This suggests that because desk jobs tend to be more mentally challenging than manual occupations, they may offer protection against cognitive decline.”

The study’s authors caution that their findings do not conclusively confirm that exercising in one’s free time while working an office job guarantees strong thinking skills in old age. Further research is ultimately needed on this matter. 

Regardless of what one chooses to do each day to pay the bills, these findings make a strong case that a balanced mix of flexing one’s mental muscles and at least semi-regular exercise is the best way to reduce the likelihood of mental decline later in life.

The full study can be found here, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.