Author: Menios Constantinou
Photographer: All images used with permission.

How a daily morning walk and regular breaks from sitting can lead to sharper minds and healthier hearts

It’s no secret that regular exercise is good for us. And it’s hardly breaking news that way too many of us are physically inactive. 

The statistics portray an alarming truth: up to 85 per cent of Australian adults don’t do enough aerobic and muscle-building physical activity, leading to chronic diseases that increase the risk of early death

This seemingly intractable tug towards sedentary behaviour is a major challenge for exercise physiologists like Michael Wheeler.

“You go away to an exercise conference and all the presentations are about the positive effects exercise can have on this and that, and the message is loud and clear: ‘exercise is good for you’,” said Wheeler, from ACU’s Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research.

“I'm always left with the lingering thought that we already know exercise is good for us, and the real challenge is getting people to do it.”

It’s with this in mind that Wheeler and his co-researchers designed the ‘Brain Breaks’ study, led by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine

They recruited 67 participants aged between 55 and 80 – who were relatively inactive and either overweight or obese – and they each underwent three conditions.  

In the first scenario, they plonked themselves in a chair for eight hours, moving only for toilet breaks; in the second, they did a brisk 30-minute treadmill walk in the morning and sat for the rest of the day; and in the third, they walked for 30 minutes once again, but rather than sitting all day, they popped back on the treadmill for three minutes every half hour.  

Throughout each condition, researchers tested a range of brain functions including concentration, decision-making, visual learning and working memory. 

“We found the cognitive test scores were worse on the day when participants sat still the whole day without any exercise,” Wheeler said. 

“And that says a lot for jobs where people are encouraged to sit for prolonged periods but are also expected to engage in competent decision-making.”  

The study found a 30-minute morning walk improved both decision-making and short-term memory over a period of eight hours, and memory scores continued to improve when the exercise was combined with regular “brain breaks” (short active interruptions to sitting).

From a public health perspective, there were two main take-outs: kicking off the morning with a brisk walk may lead to a sharper mind during the day; and staying seated for long periods is likely to be detrimental to cognitive health.  

In Wheeler’s words: “The study highlighted how relatively simple changes to your daily routine can have significant benefits.” 

The problem with sitting down

From a very young age, the majority of us spend large chunks of our time sitting down — whether we’re at school, at work, having lunch with friends or lounged in front a screen watching Netflix. 

Countless studies (for example herehere and here) have warned of the health risks of sedentary behaviour, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. 

That’s led some media to label it “the new smoking” – a tag that doesn’t sit well with scientists who argue the comparison is problematic. But once again, the message is clear: Sitting too much is bad for us.

Exercise is essential for good health

Meanwhile, the effect that prolonged sitting can have on our brains has not been well studied. In 2017, Wheeler led a review exploring how sedentary behaviour might influence brain health, and concluded that breaking excessive sitting with short bouts of exercise “may be important in forestalling cognitive decline”. 

Previous studies investigating the effects of prolonged sitting on brain function have had mixed results; with some supporting and others failing to support the theory it could impair active memory. 

But the ‘Brain Breaks’ study has now provided strong evidence that cognitive function in sedentary individuals improves with exercise. 

Good news for companies keen to improve performance and productivity, but also for employees  — because even if you work in a sedentary job, there can be lots of opportunities to build more activity into your day. Try lumbering upstairs instead of taking the lift, or walking over to a colleague for a chat rather than sending an email. 

Wheeler’s research suggests such activities are likely to improve cognitive performance. 

“One of the problems we have is that our lifestyles don’t require physical activity like they used to, so we have to compartmentalise exercise and consciously carve out 30 minutes or an hour of our day to go to the gym, and a lot of people find that really difficult,” Wheeler said. 

“But walking for 30 minutes in the morning and leaving your chair to take a regular break is something a lot of people can do. It almost falls into the category of ‘incidental’ physical activity. And that’s why we believe this has the potential to be really popular.”  

Getting people to move more

If any of the three scenarios in the ‘Brain Breaks’ study seem familiar, it’s because they were designed to mimic common daily routines. 

You might drive your car to work, park in the street outside and then scamper to your desk, where you mostly sit tapping away at a keyboard until you knock off that afternoon. 

Better yet, you might be a so-called “active commuter”, who gets some moderate exercise in the morning by walking or riding to work, but is then chained to a desk for most of the day.  

Best of all, your day might resemble the third condition in the study, where a bout of physical activity in the morning is combined with regular breaks from sitting. 

The healthier habits formed in the latter two of those scenarios might have an added benefit, hopefully setting you on the path to a more active lifestyle. 

The exercise can effectively kick off a ‘virtuous circle’, leading to improvements in decision-making and other cognitive performance, which in turn pave the way to better planning and adherence to a wide variety of health-enhancing behaviours.

“Forming a daily habit for this type of physical activity can be a real stepping stone to increasing and eventually achieving a higher level of exercise,” Wheeler said. 

For many of us, a more intense level of exercise is the ultimate goal. Because while a small amount of activity proved extremely beneficial for the study participants, who were over 55 and either overweight or obese, the returns would likely be diminished if you are young and healthy. 

“You're never going to get around the fact that moderate to vigorous intensity exercise will produce the best health benefits,” Wheeler added. “But in my view, the word ‘vigorous’ in the physical activity guidelines may put people off if they can't achieve that level of intensity, and that’s why we chose a 30-minute bout of moderate exercise for the study — because the goal was to design something that would reflect a realistic scenario or pattern.”

The most important thing of all is to “get out there and do something”

“The reality is that all movement along the spectrum of intensity has positive implications for health,” Wheeler said. “In the end, we need to encourage people to move more, because any amount of physical activity is better than none at all.”

Michael Wheeler’s research focuses on physical activity and sedentary behaviour and the implications for brain function. He completed his BSc (Hons) at Dublin City University in Ireland and is currently a PhD candidate at The University of Western Australia and The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne.

Interested in a career in health? Learn more

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