It was a terrible February night. After a full day of studying and working, I finally got some free time. I launched League of Legends (LOL, a 5v5 game), and decided I would go to bed after winning a game. I had no idea about what would happen afterwards, but my selected champions were slain much more than they could slay others. I felt pain in my back and arms, in every cell of these regions. My fingers seemed to have broken free from the brain’s instructions, just dancing wildly on the keyboard, hitting every key they encountered. The worst thing was that my brain did not seem to make rational decisions, either. Should I engage in the group fight, or should I just stay on my lane? I sat at the computer and stared at the screen for about four hours without even moving, losing all games and my patience. Finally, I decided to call that the day, and went to bed. How ironical, that what should have been relaxation had actually turned into physical and mental burden. LOL.
This night was terrible for multiple reasons. Losing 8 games in a row was definitely a sad thing, but it was actually worse to remain sedentary for a good four hours without even standing up or stretching, not to mention taking an actual break. Physically and psychologically speaking, these behaviors were extremely harmful to our brain, increasing the potential of multiple neurological and cognitive problems.
Let’s talk about sedentary lifestyle first. It seems that people spend more and more time on chairs, and more often than not, in front of a computer at the same time. In fact, a study conducted by Matthews and colleagues on 2008 showed that during a monitoring period of around 13.9 hour per day, participants on average spent 7.7 hours (somewhere around 60% of the testing period) in sitting behaviors (Matthews et al., 2008). To some extent this seems normal, as we spend so much time sitting in front of the computer during work, or in the lecture hall during class, and even when we got back home, we would lay in our couch and enjoy the new Netflix series. This may be more problematic than we think. According to WHO, the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle include but are not limited to high blood pressure, obesity, osteoporosis, depression, and anxiety (World Health Organization, n.d.). The physiological consequences are the direct effects of little to no physical activity during sitting periods. When calories we take in cannot be released in the form of physical movements (because we don’t move a lot when sitting and working), they are stored by our body as fat, and when fat builds up, high blood pressure, obesity, and osteoporosis would be more likely to occur. What’s more, a study on brain effects of sedentary lifestyle showed that this lifestyle decreased the thickness of medial temporal lobe (an area thought to be related to long-term memory), granting a higher risk of memory loss (Siddarth et al., 2018). Psychologically speaking, the increased risk for depression and anxiety can be explained as a combination of work stress, work-family conflict, and incorporation of work, and these psychological effects are significantly more prevalent among females for reasons yet to be discovered (van Ufflene et al., 2013).
And now about no breaks. I would instantly feel very sleepy the moment I realize that I have worked on something for too long, and then I would find myself impossible to re-concentrate on what I am doing. Back to that terrible LOL night, I remember having been yawning since the beginning of my sixth game, and by the end of the eighth, I just felt too mentally drained to start the ninth. Why did sleepiness and decreased attention occur? Cognitively speaking, these are signs of mental fatigue, a temporary decrease in cognitive performance as a result of prolonged cognitive activity. In other words, mental fatigue occurs when one’s attention is fully taken up by the previous task, just like a phone’s storage is filled up by cache. Sleepiness and yawning are the indications that the brain is low on energy and oxygen supply because it has just consumed a huge amount of these resources. As for the decrease of attention levels in mental fatigue, it’s a more complicated story. Generally speaking, when we pay attention to something, two of the brain’s executive control and decision-making regions, the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, are activated. These areas are related to other brain areas to actually perform attentive tasks. The prefrontal cortex is related to the parietal cortex for better adjustment of reactions, while the anterior cingulate cortex interacts with the opercular cortex for stabilizing the performance during the task (Rueda et al., 2015). Therefore, when we maintain attention for an extended amount of time, these pathways get tired, and thus we cannot keep our attention as focused as possible. Research on court judges has shown that after a (very) brief break, the attention level can restore almost completely, as the judges were able to make decisions more on a case-by-case basis instead of a safer, one-solution-for-all rationale (Danziger et al., 2011).
So, I have learned that I would never play 8 games of LOL in one sitting. The lesson is that taking breaks is very important, not only because it enables us to have some time for physical activity, but also because breaks can help us regain our attention. Well, it’s time to save the file, step away from the computer, and have a nice walk in the early spring.
Danziger, S., Levav, J., & Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892.
Matthews, C. E., Chen, K. Y., Freedson, P. S., Buchowski, M. S., Beech, B. M., Pate, R. R., & Troiano, R. P. (2008). Amount of time spent in sedentary behaviors in the United States, 2003–2004. American Journal of Epidemiology, 167(7), 875-881.
Rueda, M. R., Pozuelos, J. P., & Cómbita, L. M. (2015). Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention From brain mechanisms to individual differences in efficiency. AIMS Neuroscience, 2(4), 183-202.
Siddarth, P., Burggren, A. C., Eyre, H. A., Small, G. W., & Merrill, D. A. (2018). Sedentary behavior associated with reduced medial temporal lobe thickness in middle-aged and older adults. PloS One, 13(4), e0195549.
World Health Organization. (n.d.). Global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/pa/en/ on March 15, 2019.
Van Uffelen, J. G., van Gellecum, Y. R., Burton, N. W., Peeters, G., Heesch, K. C., & Brown, W. J. (2013). Sitting-time, physical activity, and depressive symptoms in mid-aged women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 45(3), 276-281.
Featured image fromhttps://uwm.edu/nursing/immigrant-refugee-health/break/