Walk Your Way to Improved Cognition

The physical health benefits of moderate exercise such as walking are well-documented. Walking strengthens your heart, lungs, muscles and energy level while burning calories and building bone. But did you know that walking also benefits cognition? A growing body of research shows that walking aids mental processes such as thinking, reasoning, speaking and, especially, remembering.

The Harvard School of Public Health led one of the first studies to explore this relationship, tracking more than 18,000 women over a period of 8 to 15 years. When the women reached age 70, their attention, memory and learning were tested over another 2 years. Researchers found that women who walked at an easy pace 2 to 3 hours/week performed significantly better on cognition tests than women who walked less than an hour a week.

“In addition to studies showing a reduced risk of heart disease, pulmonary disease and diabetes, a moderate level of walking also appeared to reduce the rate of
cognitive decline in our study,” said Dr. Jennifer Weuve, its lead author. “What is most striking is that for older women who are able to engage in several hours per week of physical activity, their cognitive function seemed to be comparable to that of a woman several years younger.”

And the benefit crosses gender. A smaller 2004 University of Virginia study on Alzheimer’s disease, titled “Walking and Dementia in Physically Capable
Elderly Men,” found that those who walked less than a quarter-mile a day were almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia as men who walked more than two miles daily.

Since these findings, numerous other studies have identified a relationship between walking and improved mental health. A meta-analysis of 18 studies published in Psychological Science in 2009 concluded that a variety of physical exercise programs substantially improved executive function — things like planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, working memory and multitasking.

One major reason for the benefit to the brain is that physical activity increases blood flow to the brain and decreases blood pressure and the risk of other conditions that constrict blood flow to the brain. The brain needs strong blood flow to stay healthy. Even though the brain is only about 2% of the total body weight in
humans, it receives 15%-20% of the body’s blood supply. Strong cerebral blood flow = strong brain.

A University of Pittsburgh and University of Illinois 2011 study found that people who took part in a regular walking program saw an increase in size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in memory. The hippocampus tends to shrink slightly with age, and that is what occurred with study group members who
only did stretching exercises and no walking.

Walkers in that study also showed increased connectivity in parts of another brain circuit which aids in the performance of complex tasks.

The bottom line? “If you stay physically active, you’re buying protection for your brain,” said Dr. Eric Larson.

Guest Post by Ken Krause, from WalkBoston Newsletter 2.12. Opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Massachusetts General Hospital. Looking for some inspiration? Don’t forget to join CCRPs 4-week walking challenge!

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