Most of us spend every minute of our waking hours occupied by either doing or thinking about the things on our to-do list. This busyness in our day-to-day schedule is a common source of discontent, but science suggests a “healthy” busy can benefit our mental health. A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found adults with a packed daily schedule fare better in brain health, specifically cognitive function, than their less busy peers.

"We show that people who report greater levels of daily busyness tend to have better cognition, especially with regard to memory for recently learned information," said Sara Festini, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Vital Longevity of the University of Texas at Dallas, in a statement.

Being too busy seems to be more of a “matter of fact” for many people in their daily lives. Typically, busyness has negative connotations tied to it like chronic stress, which can predispose the brain to mental illness, such as anxiety and mood disorders. However, a healthy balance could warrant positive outcomes for our brain health.

Dr. Christina Hibbert, a clinical psychologist and author of 8 Keys to Mental Health Through Exercise, believes healthy busyness involves activities that inspire, uplift, challenge, and even push us in positive ways good for both body and mind.

“Engaging our brain in our healthy-busy life provides opportunities to learn and grow. This actually helps our brain continue to form new neural connections throughout our lifespan,” she told Medical Daily.

Now, Festini and her colleagues at the University of Texas at  Dallas and the University of Alabama, sought to examine whether a busy lifestyle would boost cognitive function by recruiting 330 healthy women and men between ages 50 and 89 from the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study — an assessment of cognition and brain health, structure, and function in healthy adults.

The participants were taken to the Park Aging Mind laboratory at the Center for Vital Longevity, where the researchers observed five cognitive constructs, including processing speed — ability to automatically and fluently perform relatively easy or over-learned cognitive tasks; working memory — the ability to remember and use relevant information while in the middle of an activity; episodic memory — the ability to remember specific events in the past; reasoning — ability to think about something in a logical way; and crystallized knowledge — the ability to use skills, knowledge, and experience.

Busyness ratings were obtained from the Martin and Park Environmental Demands Questionnaire (MPED). Participants were asked to rate questions on a five-point Likert scale to assess whether their degree of busyness was healthy such as how busy they were on average; how often they felt too busy to get all the things they needed to accomplish done; and how often the amount of things they had to do delayed their bedtime. Higher scores indicated greater busyness, and the average busyness score was computed based on the answers to the seven busyness questions.

The findings revealed that at any age, and regardless of education, a busier lifestyle was linked to superior processing speed of the brain, working memory, reasoning, and vocabulary. There was an especially strong association between busyness and better episodic memory. Overall, higher levels of busyness were associated with better cognition in adults.

Festini and her colleagues do warn the findings do not mean being busy directly improves cognition. It’s possible people with better cognitive function seek out a busier lifestyle, or that busyness and cognition reinforce and strengthen each other. They do suggest that new learning might account for the cognitive benefits for busy people, who are likely to have many opportunities to learn because they are exposed to more information within a variety of situations in their daily lives. As a result, learning stimulates cognition.

Nikki Webber, a clinical psychotherapist and life coach in the UK, admits it would be hard to assume people with better mental health seek out a busy lifestyle, because some people naturally prefer a more sedate lifestyle.

However, she does believe “isolation is a leading contributing factor to depression and leading a busy lifestyle can offer more opportunities to connect to others which many people underestimate the need for,” she told Medical Daily.

A similar 2015 study found leading a busy lifestyle could put to use more efficient cognitive processing, which is the mental action of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. This can be done by developing better cognitive strategies, like cognitive reserve — building up additional abilities to compensate for the possibility of declining memory or thinking — or neural reserve — doing tasks more effectively and at a greater capacity. This will better equip us to deal with a cognitive load, which can boost our overall brain health.

Exercise is an easy way to sharpen mental acuity. It is not only a great activity that keeps the brain focused on physical flexibility, motion and coordination, but also strengthens our cognitive capacities, including learning, memory, judgement, insight, mental clarity, and focus.

According to Hibbert, “[E]xercise works like a medicine to increase the availability of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine in the brain which make us feel good and can prevent and treat mental illness.”

On the days we can’t squeeze in a workout, everyday work activities can help keep our brains busy. Hibbert believes as we focus on the task at hand and use our brain to solve problems and work through solutions, we build our brain muscles in a similar fashion when we lift weights for our body.

The benefits of busyness should not undervalue rest and relaxation, especially since they are essential parts of a healthy brain too.

This encourages us to stay active, and lead a busy lifestyle even when we move on to older adulthood — for our brain’s health.

Source: Festini SB, McDonough IM, and Park DC. The Busier the Better: Greater Busyness is Associated with Better Cognition. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2016.