If you tend to be a night owl, you may want to take some notes. That’s because a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry found people who consistently get up early and remain active throughout the day tend to be happier and mentally stronger, especially in older age, when compared to people with irregular daily activity patterns.
Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh also suggest that activity patterns – not just the intensity of activity – are just as 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,” Stephen Smagula, PhD, first author of the study and associate professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a statement. “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.”
Other findings from the study
Smagula said the research team recruited 1,800 adults over the age of 65 to study daily activity patterns among older adults. The participants wore an actigraph – a device that measures movement – on their wrists for seven days and completed questionnaires to evaluate cognitive function and depression symptoms.
“We don’t know exactly what people were doing, except whether they were active, how much, and when,” he said.
The team’s analysis revealed that 37.6% of the participants woke up early in the morning and remained active throughout the day and followed consistent routines. For example, many older adults followed robust patterns, such as getting up before 7 a.m. and remaining active for around 15 hours each day.
“They also tend to follow the same pattern day in, day out,” he said. “Lo and behold, those same adults were happier, less depressed and had better cognitive function than other participants.”
The authors also shared that 32.6% of older adults had consistent daily patterns; however, they were active for about 13.4 hours each day because they woke up at a later time in the morning. Those participants scored lower on cognitive tests and described more depressive symptoms compared to the participants who woke up earlier in the day.
According to Smagula, while this finding suggests that activity intensity and what you do is important for health, the duration and how long you’re active might be more important.
“This is a different way of thinking about activity,” he said. “You may not need to be sprinting or running a marathon but simply staying engaged with activities throughout the day.”
The remaining participants (29.8%) showed disrupted activity and inconsistent patterns during the day. These older adults demonstrated the highest rates of depression and had the worst performance on cognitive tests.
“Now we know a bit more on what to look for and what these disrupted patterns might be related to,” he said. “This is useful because it can guide future clinical research aimed at restoring strong routines and improving health.”
The connection between regular activity and stronger cognitive function
“We know that consistently engaging in morning activity – especially if you get sunlight exposure – can help set a strong circadian rhythm (which helps tell your body when to do what, when to be awake/alert and when to sleep),” Smagula said.
In addition, being regularly active at certain times allows people to socially connect with others.
“In aging, having the opportunity to engage with others/activities you like can give you a sense of purpose that we humans need!” he said. “In contrast, irregular activity patterns can deprive us of opportunities to be social/attend/participate in enjoyable activities, make it harder to get good/deep sleep, increase the likelihood of having bad sleep and weaken our circadian rhythms.”
Regularly engaging in activities, whether physical, social or intellectual, also forces people to flex and use their brain muscles to solve problems, think, learn and converse, said Krithika Srivats, SVP of clinical practice and products for HGS AxisPoint Health.
“Moreover, keeping an active routine, even with low-impact activities, can fill your day with movement, interaction, purpose and meaning,” she said.
Finally, regular activity patterns are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and dementia and help individuals maintain independence.
Regular activity patterns are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and dementia and help individuals maintain independence.
“Regular physical activity reduces the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes,” said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, MD, clinical associate professor at NYU Langone Health. “These chronic diseases can lead to vascular disease in the brain resulting in cognitive impairment.”
How to help your loved ones establish healthy routines
While external factors, such as visitors, weather, health and several other uncontrollable events, can impact activity, adaptation and willingness are key drivers of establishing a consistent routine, Srivats said.
“For example, if your parent lives in a cold climate and has to stop walking outdoors during the winter season, make sure you make adequate space in the basement or use a treadmill or even walk around the house,” she said.
Here are some other tips to help your loved one establish a routine:
- Form a consistent sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day can help establish consistency and help your body and brain adapt to a routine.
- Lay out a plan or make a list. Write out tasks, appointments, events and other daily activities for the day. Simply writing things down can remind you what you need to do each day.
- Structure the day. Break the day into blocks and group your tasks or activities into the time of day that makes the most sense.
- Find enjoyable activities and test the waters. Encourage loved ones to find activities, events or classes that they can enjoy. You may also want to experiment with a daily routine and make any changes accordingly.
“Beyond the physical benefits, a meaningful routine gives a sense of purpose in life, which can have profound positive effects on how older adults experience the ‘golden years,’” Srivats said.
Why establishing a routine may be helpful for caregivers, too
While following a routine can be beneficial for older adults, it may be helpful for caregivers, too—allowing them to find time to be physically active, engage in activities they enjoy, socialize with others and care for themselves.
In addition, most burnout occurs because of lengthy periods of total caregiving, Srivats said.
“Most caregivers of older adults often have very full lives that include caring for children, working, and maintaining a social life,” she said. “Incorporating routines will help the caregiver have a reliable schedule and can be an opportunity to enlist support from friends, family and community services.”