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health care

Mature businessman examining documents at desk in office

A study suggests a sedentary job may provide better cognitive protection than a more physically active role.

Experts have long warned about the potential dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Many studies suggest that being physically inactive increases the risk of health issues.

However, the connection between being physically active and maintaining cognitive health has been less clear. Now, a new study from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom further emphasizes this uncertainty.

The research has found that people with desk jobs are far less likely to experience cognitive decline than those with physically active roles.

“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 lead author Shabina Hayat.

“With our large cohort of volunteers, we were able to explore the relationship between different types of physical activity in a variety of settings,” she adds.

The research appears in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Cognitive benefits of a desk job

The study is based on data from the Epic-Norfolk Cohort, a long-term project involving some 30,000 participants aged 40 to 79. It aims to investigate links between daily activities, diet, and cancer.

Across an average of 12 years, investigators assessed participants’ cognition, including attention, memory, and visual processing speed. Researchers also administered a reading-ability test that roughly captured each individual’s IQ.

Among the data collected was information regarding levels of physical activity during work hours and leisure time. Measurements of an individual’s physical activity in the Cambridge study combined the two.

A total of 8,585 individuals from the Epic-Norfolk study served as the cohort for the new Cambridge study.

The study reports that those with desk jobs — which are typically sedentary roles — have a lower risk of cognitive decline. Moreover, people with lifelong desk-based careers were most likely to be among the study’s top 10% of cognitive performers.

Conversely, people whose jobs involve manual work have nearly three times the risk of developing poor cognition.

Hayat proposes that it may be the job itself that provides the benefit. “Because desk jobs tend to be more mentally challenging than manual occupations, they may offer protection against cognitive decline,” Hayat says.

“Our analysis shows that the relationship between physical activity and cognitive [function] is not straightforward,” Hayat admits.

“While regular physical activity has considerable benefits for protection against many chronic diseases, other factors may influence future poor cognition.”

Seeking other connections

The researchers also looked at the potential impact of education level on cognition, but found little evidence that it was relevant. Hayat says that “people who have less active jobs — typically office-based, desk jobs — performed better at cognitive tests regardless of their education.”

The team also looked into the relationship between leisure physical activity and cognition. They were unable to draw any strong associations, at least partially, because such activities were “confounded by education, social class, and occupation.”

Confusingly, the data also suggest that leisure physical activity may offer some cognitive protection, though this seems to contradict the study’s main finding that work-related physical activity does not.

The data “reveals a differential in the association between cognition and inactivity during work and leisure,” says the study. Though exactly what that is remains unclear, particularly in light of the lower leisure-time activity levels reported by those with physical jobs.

People who were physically active during work were less likely to be similarly active during their time off.

The study concludes with an argument for additional research:

“Further studies are needed, in particular, on inequalities across socio-economic groups and the impact of lower education, poor-quality work (shortage of beneficial physical and mental stimulation), particularly for manual labor, and the lack of opportunity and space to be physically active for leisure. All these are key drivers that provide fewer opportunities to build cognitive reserve to protect for cognitive impairment and dementia in later life.”

Women doing warm up before fitness training in Berlin.

A new study in mice has revealed that muscle mass may help maintain a strong immune system.

New research in mice has revealed that strong skeletal muscles play an important role in maintaining an effective immune system. This is particularly the case during severe chronic illnesses, which can otherwise wear the immune system down.

In addition, skeletal muscles may combat the process of cachexia. This refers to the wasting away of muscle and fat that often accompanies severe chronic illness, alongside a weakening of the immune system.

The research, which scientists at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg have now published in the journal Science Advances, lays the groundwork for future studies to determine if the same is true in humans.


According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), cachexia typically accompanies severe chronic illnesses such as cancer. It is characterized by the wasting away of the body’s muscle and fat.

Cachexia may be responsible for up to a third of cancer-related deaths. It can also affect people with other serious conditions, such as AIDS, chronic kidney diseases, and heart failure.

According to Dr. Alfred Goldberg — of the Harvard University School of Medicine in Cambridge, MA — cachexia may be due to the body overcompensating when it attempts to take energy from muscle and fat to help fight a severe illness. However, exactly why and how this happens are still largely unknown.

Despite cachexia’s link to mortality, researchers have not yet developed any effective therapies for it. However, according to the NCI, there is a growing awareness of the need to research cachexia in the hope that scientists can find effective therapies.

Alongside cachexia, people with severe illnesses can also experience a weakened immune system. This is because their T cells, which are central to the immune system’s response to illness, become exhausted.

Scientists have also linked these T cells to cachexia. According to senior study author Dr. Guoliang Cui: “It is known that T cells are involved in the loss of skeletal muscle mass. But whether and how, in turn, skeletal muscles influence the function of the T cells is still unclear.”

Precursor T cells

In this context, the researchers developed a study to explore the relationship between cachexia, skeletal muscle mass, and T cells.

First, they transmitted the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus to mice. They then studied the gene expression in the skeletal muscle of the mice. They noticed that in response to the chronic infection, the mice’s muscle cells released more of the messenger substance interleukin-15.

Interleukin-15 attracts the precursors of T cells — in this case, to the skeletal muscle. This places these precursor T cells away from the infection that is wearing down the T cells combating the infection.

“If the T cells, which actively fight the infection, lose their full functionality through continuous stimulation, the precursor cells can migrate from the muscles and develop into functional T cells.”

– Lead study author Dr. Jingxia Wu

“This enables the immune system to fight the virus continuously over a long period,” she adds.

Significantly, the study revealed a relationship between muscle mass loss and T cell exhaustion. This has implications for the strength of the immune system.

As Dr. Cui notes: “In our study, mice with more muscle mass were better able to cope with chronic viral infection than those whose muscles were weaker. But whether the results can be transferred to humans, future experiments will have to show.”

The study focused on skeletal muscle, but cachexia also causes fat tissue to waste away. As a consequence, the study authors suggest that future research could explore whether or not a similar relationship exists between fat tissue and the protection of T cells.

The researchers also note that it is not yet clear how these T cell precursors form in skeletal muscle mass.

The hope is that as further studies answer these questions, scientists can develop effective therapies that specifically target cachexia in humans.