Getting up early and keeping active throughout the day have been found as the two most important behaviours in helping us stay healthy in our later years.
A new study out of the University of Pittsburgh in the U.S. found those older adults who consistently rise and shine nice and early, and have plenty to do during the day are happier and perform better on cognitive tests than their peers.
The findings suggest patterns of activity, not just the intensity of the activity, are important 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,” – lead author Stephen Smagula, Ph.D.
The University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of psychiatry and epidemiology says the good news is most people can put these things into practice quite quickly.
“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.”
More than 1,800 senior citizens aged over 65 were involved in the study.
Participants wore accelerometers (movement-detecting devices) on their wrists to measure activity, and they completed questionnaires to assess depression symptoms and cognitive function.
Analysis showed 37.6% of participants rose early in the morning, stayed active throughout the day, and had consistent daily routines.
“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.”
Another group comprising 32.6% of participants similarly had consistent daily patterns but were active for an average of just 13.4 hours each day because they rose later in the morning or settled down earlier in the evening.
This group had more depressive symptoms and poorer cognition than the early risers.
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,”
“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.”