Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh said that activity patterns – not just the intensity of activity – are just as important for healthy aging and mental health, reports Seasons’s recent article entitled “Why early birds (who also stay active) are happier and mentally stronger.”
“There’s something about getting going early, staying active all day and following the same routine each day that seems to be protecting older adults,” Stephen Smagula, PhD, first author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a statement. “What’s exciting about these findings is that activity patterns are under voluntary control, which means that making intentional changes to one’s daily routine could improve health and wellness.”
The research team recruited 1,800 adults 65+ to study daily activity patterns. They wore an actigraph – a device that measures movement – on their wrists for seven days and completed questionnaires to evaluate cognitive function and depression symptoms.
“We don’t know exactly what people were doing, except whether they were active, how much, and when,” he said.
The results showed that 37.6% of the participants woke up early in the morning and remained active throughout the day and followed consistent routines.
“They also tend to follow the same pattern day in, day out,” he said. “Lo and behold, those same adults were happier, less depressed and had better cognitive function than other participants.”
The authors found that 32.6% of older adults had consistent daily patterns, but they were active for about 13.4 hours each day because they woke up at a later time in the morning. Those participants scored lower on cognitive tests and described more depressive symptoms, compared to the participants who woke up earlier in the day. Although this finding suggests that activity intensity and what you do is important for health, the duration and how long you’re active might be more important.
“This is a different way of thinking about activity,” he said. “You may not need to be sprinting or running a marathon but simply staying engaged with activities throughout the day.”
The remaining participants (29.8%) showed disrupted activity and inconsistent patterns during the day. They showed the highest rates of depression and had the worst performance on cognitive tests.
“Now we know a bit more on what to look for and what these disrupted patterns might be related to,” he said. “This is useful because it can guide future clinical research aimed at restoring strong routines and improving health.”
“We know that consistently engaging in morning activity – especially if you get sunlight exposure – can help set a strong circadian rhythm (which helps tell your body when to do what, when to be awake/alert and when to sleep),” Smagula said.
Regularly engaging in activities, whether physical, social or intellectual, also forces people to flex and use their brain muscles to solve problems, think, learn and converse, said Krithika Srivats, SVP of clinical practice and products for HGS AxisPoint Health.
“Moreover, keeping an active routine, even with low-impact activities, can fill your day with movement, interaction, purpose and meaning,” she said.
Finally, regular activity patterns are linked to a lower risk of heart disease and dementia and help people maintain independence.
Reference: Seasons (Sep. 18, 2022) “Why early birds (who also stay active) are happier and mentally stronger”