Sedentary Behavior Patterns in Late Adulthood and the Effects on Cognitive Functioning and Well-being – By: Alexa Vaquero


Discriminating against older adults, based on their age, is not something a lot of people do purposefully, or with malicious intent.  Rather, this type of discrimination, known as ageism (Burzynska, 2017b), derives from myths about aging that are portrayed in movies, TV, and various other forms of media.  As we organize our conscious and unconscious perceptions of older adults’ behavioral patterns, we develop stereotypes about them.  Stereotypes are social beliefs about a group of people, which affects how we take in new information and come to conclusions (Burzynska, 2017b).  One common stereotype about older adults is that they spend a lot of their time doing sedentary activities; such as, watching television, using computers, and reading books.  In order to investigate whether this is true, we must look at the factors that may contribute to their sedentary behavior.  Also, it is important to explore how sedentary leisure activities affect the cognitive functioning and well-being of older adults.  Looking at the causes and effects of sedentary activities in older adulthood, will give us a wider perspective of the characteristics of old age and aging.

According to Chen and Fu (2008), older adults spend about one-third of their day watching television, reading, and doing other leisure activities.  The researchers’ data was collected from the 2007 Taiwan Social Change Survey (TSCS), and they focused on individuals aged 60 and over (averaging 70.49 years of age).  The TSCS included questions about the participants’ age, gender, educational level, health (on a scale from poor to excellent), and residence (rural or urban).  The participants reported how often they engage in reading books, watching TV/DVDs/videos, getting together with friends, and participating in physical activities.  Then, they rated how much they enjoy each of the four activities.  Out of the 499 respondents, 81.9% watched TV/DVDs/videos every day.  While this supports the stereotype that older adults spend much of their time doing sedentary activities, it was also discovered that nearly 50% of the participants engage in daily physical activity.  Furthermore, only 6.5% of the participants reported socializing with friends, and 7.0% reported reading books every day.  Another result of the study is that older adults do not necessarily enjoy how they spend their free time.  Only 12.8% of the participants reported that they experience a high level of enjoyment while watching TV/DVDs/videos; compared to the 20.2% who enjoy physical activities the most.  Those who rated their health the highest, participated in all four of activities more often.  This study brings attention to the fact that older adults do spend a lot of time doing sedentary activities, but there are likely demographic influences, such as health, that limit what they are physically able to do (Chen & Fu, 2008).

The study from Chen and Fu (2008), found that watching TV is not necessarily something older adults enjoy the most, which raises the question of why many of them choose to watch TV, over other forms of technology/entertainment.  In a more recent study, older adults (aged 60 and older) attending a day hospital were asked to participate in a questionnaire describing their use of technology (Scanlon, O’Shea, O’Caoimh & Timmons, 2015).  The questionnaire included questions about the participants’ age, sex, experience with technology, self-rated technology use skills, and frequency of technology use (Scanlon et al., 2015).  There were a total of 255 participants, and a total of 215 (84%) of the participants reported using technology regularly (Scanlon et al., 2015).  Mobile phones were the most frequently used form of technology (73%), while TV’s were a close second (72%) (Scanlon et al., 2015).  Thirty-one percent of the participants reported using a computer, and 3% use games consoles (Scanlon et al., 2015).  An important note from the study is that the participants who used mobile phones, or computers, were considerably younger than the rest of the participants (Scanlon et al., 2015).  These findings show that older adults are more likely to use technologies, like TV’s, that they are more familiar with operating, and have been around longer (Scanlon et al., 2015).  The results of the study confirm that many older adults spend their time in front of TVs and computers, especially since they seem to be the easiest for them to operate.  Yet, it is important to keep in mind that the participants in this study were attending a day hospital, and were probably limited in the types of leisure activities they could participate in.

In a study from Van Cauwenberg, Van Holle, De Bourdeaudhuij, Owen and Deforche (2015), it was found that older adults without a tertiary education, and who spend excessive amounts of time watching TV, are one of the most at risk populations for a variety of health issues.  The researchers conducted the study in order to gain insight into daily patterns of sedentary behavior, and to identify populations of people who may need interventions to reduce sedentary time.  Extended amounts of sitting and expending low levels of energy, have recently been associated with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular morbidity and premature mortality.  The researchers used stratified cluster sampling to find 508 Belgian older adults (65 years of age or older).  They assessed the participants’ morning, afternoon, evening and total sedentary time, using accelerometers.  Interviews were also conducted to gather information about the participants’ specific sedentary behaviors, total sitting time and sociodemographic characteristics.  The researchers found that the accelerometer-derived sedentary time was a mean of 580 minutes per day.  The total time spent sitting was lowest in the mornings and highest in the evenings, and widowers were more sedentary during daytime, compared to married couples.  Individuals who received a tertiary education watched 29% minutes per day less TV compared to those with primary or secondary education.  The conclusions of the study support the high amount of sedentary time in older adulthood, and it suggests that this behavior can be detrimental to the health of these individuals.  The study also provides possible contributions to sedentary behavior, such as, lower levels of education, and marital status (Van Cauwenberg et al., 2015).

Another recent study, from Kesse-Guyot et al. (2012), explores the associations between sedentary activities and cognitive performance in healthy older adults.  The researchers used longitudinal and cross-sectional means to collect data from 1425 men and 1154 women, aged (about) 65.  The participants were asked to give self-reports, in 2001 and 2007, about the time they spent watching TV, time spent reading and usual physical activity levels.  Follow-up assessments were conducted from 2007 to 2009, and a battery of six neuropsychological tests were used to score individuals on verbal memory and executive functioning.  According to the multivariable cross-sectional models, participants using the computer for 1 hour per day exhibited better verbal memory and executive functioning than those who did not use a computer.  On the other hand, the researchers observed a negative association between TV viewing and executive functioning.  It was also discovered that those who increased their computer use by more than 30 minutes between 2001 and 2007 showed better performance on both verbal memory and executive functioning.  The researchers concluded that regular computer use, and less time spent watching TV, may help maintain cognitive functioning during the aging process.  This study points to the decrease in cognitive functioning, due to time spent watching TV, as a possible factor of increased sedentary activity in older adulthood (Kesse-Guyot et al., 2012).

Current research supports the stereotype that older adults spend much of their time doing sedentary activities, especially watching TV.  In older adulthood, individuals have decreasing demands and obligations, which gives them more time to engage in leisure activities (Chen & Fu, 2008).  Yet, time of day, a lower educational level, and other factors contribute to the types of sedentary activities that older adults engage in.  Poor health also limits the types of leisure activities individuals can physically do (Chen & Fu, 2008).  Secondary aging factors, such as osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis, may severely decrease older adults’ mobility, and contribute a more sedentary lifestyle (Burzynska, A. (2017a). Older adults may find more enjoyment in other activities, but these factors of aging may limit their options.



Burzynska, A. (2017a). Physical changes with age [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from

Burzynska, A. (2017b). Stereotypes and ageism [PowerPoint Slides]. Retrieved from

Chen, S., & Fu, Y. (2008). Leisure participation and enjoyment among the elderly: Individual characteristics and sociability. Educational Gerontology34(10), 871-889. doi:10.1080/03601270802115382

Kesse-Guyot, E., Charreire, H., Andreeva, A., Touvier, M., Hercberg, S., Galan, P., & Oppert, J. (2012). Cross-sectional and longitudinal associations of different sedentary behaviors with cognitive performance in older adults. Plos ONE7(10), 1-8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047831

Scanlon, L., O’Shea, E., O’Caoimh, R., & Timmons, S. (2015). Technology use and frequency and self-rated skills: A survey of community-dwelling older adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 63, 1483-1484. doi:10.1111/jgs.13507

Van Cauwenberg, J., Van Holle, V., De Bourdeaudhuij, I., Owen, N., & Deforche, B. (2015). Diurnal patterns and correlates of older adults’ sedentary behavior. Plos ONE10(8), 1-14. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0133175


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