Happier and Improved Cognition: Study Finds New Benefits of Regular Activity Routines

The study indicates that patterns of activity are important for healthy aging and mental health.

A study finds that older adults with regular activity routines perform better on cognitive tests and are typically happier.

According to a recent study performed by University of Pittsburgh researchers, older adults who regularly get up early and stay active throughout the day are happier and score better on cognitive tests than those with inconsistent activity habits.

The results, which were published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, indicate that activity patterns, not simply activity intensity, are essential for healthy aging and mental health.

“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,” said lead author Stephen Smagula, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Pitt. “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.”

Smagula and his colleagues gathered 1,800 seniors over the age of 65 in order to understand more about the daily exercise patterns of older persons living in the United States and discover links with mental health and cognition. Participants completed questionnaires to evaluate depressive symptoms and cognitive performance while wearing accelerometers, movement-detecting devices often found in smartphones and fitness trackers, on their wrists for seven days to measure activity.

The investigation revealed that 37.6% of individuals had consistent daily routines, got up early, and was active throughout the day.

“Many older adults had robust patterns: They get up before 7 a.m. on average, and they keep going; they stay active for 15 hours or so each day. They also tend to follow the same pattern day in, day out,” said Smagula. “Lo and behold, those same adults were happier, less depressed, and had better cognitive function than other participants.”

Similarly, a second group of 32.6% of participants had consistent daily routines, although they were only active for an average of 13.4 hours per day due to waking later in the morning or going to sleep earlier in the evening. In comparison to the early risers, this group showed higher signs of depression and had worse cognition.

“People often think about activity intensity being important for health, but it might be the duration of activity that matters more,” said Smagula. “This is a different way of thinking about activity: You may not need to be sprinting or running a marathon but simply staying engaged with activities throughout the day.”

The remaining 29.8% of participants had disrupted activity patterns in which periods of activity were erratic throughout the day and inconsistent across days. These adults had the highest rates of depression and performed worst on cognitive tests.

According to Smagula, the relationship between mental health and activity patterns likely goes both ways: Depression or cognitive impairment can make it harder to follow a consistent routine, and conversely, having a disrupted activity rhythm may worsen these symptoms.

“Our findings suggest that activity pattern disruption is very common and associated with health problems in older adults,” explained Smagula. “The relationship is likely bi-directional, so the good news is we think that simple changes — things everyone can try — can restore regular activity patterns, and doing so may improve health.”

Now, Smagula and his team are developing interventions to test their hypothesis that modifying behaviors to develop more consistent daily routines will boost cognition and improve mental health in older adults.

Smagula said that the first step to developing a consistent routine and getting better sleep is waking up at the same time each day — no matter how tired you are.

“The other thing is having a realistic plan to keep active through the whole day. This can be really hard — especially if you’re in a slump or recovering from an injury — so it’s important to be reasonable with yourself,” he added. “A plan could include making a list of activities you enjoy and scheduling time to meet a friend or neighbor.”

Time cues, called “zeitgebers,” which help set the body’s internal clock, can also assist in creating a stable routine. These include sunlight, exercise, and eating. Pets, which often demand meals and walks at the same time each day, can be important social zeitgebers.

“Most people are aware of the importance of good sleep and exercise, but I think what’s missing from this picture is the daily, or circadian, pattern of activity,” said Smagula. “Having something to wake up for each morning and having a full day that you find purposeful and rewarding might be what’s important for us sleeping well at night and aging well.”

Reference: “Association of 24-Hour Activity Pattern Phenotypes With Depression Symptoms and Cognitive Performance in Aging” by Stephen F. Smagula, Ph.D., Gehui Zhang, BS, Swathi Gujral, Ph.D., Naima Covassin, Ph.D., Jingen Li, MD, Ph.D., Warren D. Taylor, MD, Charles F. Reynolds III, MD and Robert T. Krafty, Ph.D., 31 August 2022, JAMA Psychiatry.
DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2022.2573

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

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