This One Small Change Can Improve Your Cognitive Function

A new study suggests that there’s a simple way to sidestep the cognitive demerits of a sedentary lifestyle.

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We have become an increasingly sedentary species: We sit at our desks, in our cars and on our couches watching Netflix. But science tells us this lifestyle has serious consequences, not just for our physical health but also for our ability to think, according to new research published in the British Journal of Psychology. Luckily, the study also suggests an easy way to bypass the cognitive disadvantages of modernity — and you can do it at your desk.

The study found that visual working memory, or the ability to hold visual information in your head while completing a task, is improved by aerobic exercise — and even simple upright posture. Study participants were able to think and work faster when their bodies were engaged, rather than slumped.

For those of us who work at a desk, typing away while staring at a computer screen all day, this news might seem disheartening. It is unusual to have access to a treadmill or even a standing desk: Aerobic exercise, while executing the crucial functions of your workday, is often not an option. But the posture finding of this study is exciting news for anyone looking to think more effectively at work, treadmill desk or no: Most workers are able to sit up straight without much trouble.

That isn’t to say keeping good posture is easy. Unless (maybe even if) you were trained in ballet, your posture likely has years of getting pulled down already, and it can be tough to reverse the force of gravity.

These microsteps, according to the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), can help you transform your posture and as a result, your work:

Pay attention to your feet and legs

You may focus on your back when trying to straighten up, but the ACA recommends that you pay just as much attention to your feet and legs: Keep your feet on the floor (or if they don’t reach, a footrest), uncross your legs, and make sure your ankles are in front of your knees. There should be a small gap between the front of your seat and the back of your knees, as well, and your knees should be at or below the level of your hips.

Check your arms and shoulders

Your forearms should be parallel to the ground, and your shoulders relaxed, the ACA says. As with your feet and legs, your arms and shoulders matter — posture is about how your whole body aligns, not just your back.

Make sure your chair is supporting your back

If you can, the ACA recommends you adjust the backrest of your chair to give your low- and mid-back good support. If you can’t adjust the chair, use a back support (a pillow, or even a sweater) to give yourself something comfortable to hold your back upright.

Move around!

That means regularly getting up for a quick walk (even just to the restroom or water cooler and back) and remembering to re-adjust your posture as it slips. Staying in the same position “for long periods of time” is bad for your posture, says the ACA — and, according to the cognition study, bad for your mind. Keep your blood flowing, your back tall, and your brain sharp by making sure your body remains engaged, even on long, intense work days.

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