Data from a study conducted by the University of Cambridge show that people who work in jobs that require less physical activity, specifically office and desk-based jobs, have a lower risk of subsequent poor cognition than those whose work is more physically active.

Although lack of physical activity and exercise are known risk factors for serious health conditions, further evidence as to whether physical activity actually protects against cognitive decline has often been mixed and inconclusive, according to the current study.

Researchers examined patterns of physical activity among 8500 men and women who were between the ages of 40 and 79 years at the start of the study and who had a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and educational attainment. The research team was able to separate physical activity during work and leisure to see whether these factors had different associations with later life cognition.

Participants completed health and lifestyle questionnaires, including information on the level of physical activity during both work and leisure, and underwent a health examination. The participants were invited back to complete an array of tests after an average of 12 years. These tests included memory, attention, visual processing speed, and a reading ability test that approximates IQ, according to the press release.

The data found that individuals with no qualifications were more likely to have physically active jobs, but less likely to be physically active outside of work. Further, a physically inactive job is associated with lower risk of poor cognition, regardless of the level of education.

The participants who remained in this type of work throughout the study period were the most likely to be in the top 10% of performers. Those in manual work had an almost 3 times increased risk of poor cognition than those with an inactive job, according to the press release.

“Our analysis shows that the relationship between physical activity and cognitive is not straightforward,” said Shabina Hayat, Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge, in a press release. “While regular physical activity has considerable benefits for protection against many chronic diseases, other factors may influence its effect on future poor cognition.”

Hayat added that the study results suggest that since desk jobs tend to be more mentally challenging than manual occupations, they may offer protection against cognitive decline.

The study authors noted that further research will need to be conducted to include a more detailed exploration of the relationship of physical activity with cognition, particularly on inequalities across socio-economic groups and the impact of lower education.

Desk-based jobs may offer protection against poor cognition in later life. University of Cambridge. Published July 7, 2020. Accessed July 8, 2020.