Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour, and Sleep

Physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep are important to your well-being and brain health.

⏱ 3 min read

Physical activity 

Many scientific studies have shown that exercise is great for the brain. It helps to release chemicals in the brain that are responsible for maintaining and improving brain health. There are many reasons to exercise, such as: improved bone health, lower risk of heart disease, improved mood, and decreased risk of falling, to name a few examples. Maintaining your brain health is just one more good reason to exercise.

Studies have found that people who exercise the most throughout mid-life have the lowest chance of developing dementia when they get older. Both aerobic exercise (like running, jogging, or brisk walking) and resistance training (muscle strengthening exercises) have been linked with better brain function immediately after exercise, as well as over longer periods of time. 

The Canadian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Adults Aged 18-64 and 65+

The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) outline specific recommendations for all adults over the age of 18 to move more, reduce sedentary time, and sleep well. Participation in a range of physical activities (e.g., weight-bearing/non-weight bearing, sport and recreation) in a variety of environments (e.g., home/work/community; indoors/outdoors; land/ water) and contexts (e.g., leisure, transportation, occupation, household) across all seasons is recommended. All adults should limit long periods of sedentary behaviour and practice healthy sleep hygiene (routines, behaviours, and environments conducive to sleeping well).

Physical Activity

  • Accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.
  • Add muscle and bone-strengthening activities using your major muscle groups, at least two days per week.
  • Include several hours of light physical activities, including standing.

For those 65+ years of age with mobility issues, activities to enhance balance to prevent falls are also recommended.

Remember, the key to any exercise program is to find something you enjoy so that the odds increase that you’ll stick with it.


Get 7 to 9 hours of good-quality sleep on a regular basis for adults aged 18 to 64, and 7 to 8 hours for those 65 and older, with consistent bed and wake-up times.

Sedentary Behaviour

Limit sedentary time to 8 hours or less

  • no more than 3 hours of recreational screen time, and
  • try to break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.

Remember, the goal is progress, not perfection: progressing toward any of the above goals will result in some health benefits.

Please note as we age, we may need to be careful about starting exercise routines. Visual problems, hearing problems, heart disease, lung disease, muscle weakness or balance issues, and other conditions may make exercise unsafe. When possible, consider group exercise classes specifically designed for you. It is always safest to consult with your physician and/or physiotherapist, athletic therapist, or recreational therapist before starting new exercise routines and make sure you’re on the right track.

Download the CSEP 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for ages 18-64 or +65 years

More about sleep

If you have chronic trouble sleeping or insomnia, you may have thought about using over-the-counter sleep aids or prescription medications like sleeping pills. Unfortunately, many sleeping pills are not that effective and may be associated with adverse effects. These adverse effects may worsen your brain health, as well as things like balance.

There are very effective non-medication approaches to help with sleep, including developing better sleep habits (often known as good ‘sleep hygiene’). An effective alternative way to manage insomnia is through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (or CBT, often called CBTi when used for insomnia specifically).

A good resource with information about insomnia and CBTi is the Sleepwell website from Dalhousie University researchers. They also have excellent evidence-based recommendations for self-help books, tools, and apps.

    Key points from this topic

    • Move more, including aerobic exercise and strength-training.
    • Reduce sedentary time.
    • Sleep well.
      • If you do have sleep problems, consider non-drug approaches like good sleep hygiene and CBTi.


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    Anthony Levinson

    Anthony J. Levinson, MD, MSc, FRCPC

    Neuropsychiatrist, Professor; Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University

    About this Project

    Who authored and edited this page?

    This page was developed by the Division of e-Learning Innovation team and Dr. Anthony J. Levinson, MD, FRCPC (Psychiatry). Dr. Levinson is a psychiatrist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behaviour Neurosciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University. He is the Director of the Division of e-Learning Innovation, as well as the John Evans Chair in Health Sciences Educational Research at McMaster. He practices Consultation-Liaison Psychiatry, with a special focus on dementia and neuropsychiatry. He is also the co-developer of the dementia care partner resource, and one of the co-leads for the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal. He and his team are passionate about developing high-quality digital content to improve people's understanding about health. By the way, no computer-generated content was used on this page. Specifically, a real human (me) wrote and edited this page without the help of generative AI like ChatGPT or Bing's new AI or otherwise.

    Are there any important disclosures or conflicts of interest?

    Dr. Levinson receives funding from McMaster University as part of his research chair. He has also received several grants for his work from not-for-profit granting agencies. He has no conflicts of interest with respect to the pharmaceutical industry; and there were no funds from industry used in the development of this website.

    When was it last reviewed?

    August 22, 2023

    What references and evidence were used to create this content?

    Content was written and adapted based on credible, high-quality, non-biased sources such as MedlinePlus, the National Institutes for Mental Health, the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal, the American Psychiatric Association, the Cochrane Library, the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH) and others. In particular, evidence-based content about dementia risk reduction was also derived from the World Health Organization and the Lancet Commission reports. Please see additional references on the e-learning lesson landing page

    Who funded it?

    The initial development of some of this content was funded by the Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, powered by Baycrest. Subsequent funding was through support from the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal, with support from the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative, the Faculty of Health Sciences, and the McMaster Institute for Research on Aging (MIRA) at McMaster University, and the Public Health Agency of Canada. There are no conflicts of interest to declare. There was no industry funding for this content.