Walking improves physical and mental fitness

Tim Hogan Times Correspondent

The benefits of regular walking run the gamut from improved cardiovascular health to reduced risk of diabetes.

But did you know that walking can also improve your memory?

And according to a recent study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health, walking can improve your memory.

Older people studied who walked four days a week had increased brain connectivity and improved memory.

“There’s a mountain of scientific evidence that shows that moderate walking (especially outdoors) is powerful medicine for brain health,” says John Bobalik, an exercise physiologist at Purdue University’s Northwest Fitness Centers.

According to Bobalik, walking at a moderate pace stimulates the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. This protein is the key to the survival of brain neurons and the generation of new ones. With age and inactivity, these neurons die faster, affecting brain health.

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“As our brain ages, our brain can become smaller and the connections between neurons can deteriorate,” says Aditya Shah, MD, a family practice physician at NorthShore Health Centers.

He says studies show that walking “can help these neural pathways, improving brain function.”

Bobalik also emphasizes the connection between walking and nerve health. “Moderate walking serves as a type of molecular fertilizer to maintain and improve brain health by stimulating the development of new neurons,” he says.

Shah also notes that walking increases blood flow, which boosts nutrients that restore brain function. “Walking is a very stimulating activity for the brain,” he says. “It takes a lot of concentration and a lot of brain power to do it.”

The University of Maryland study is part of a growing body of evidence linking exercise to delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The study examined the brains and story recall abilities of older adults with normal brain function and those diagnosed with a mild decline in mental abilities such as memory, reasoning and judgment, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

It’s exciting, if not surprising, news for Laura Forbes, director of communications for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Indiana.

“We are working to better understand the role of exercise in reducing the risk of cognitive decline,” says Forbes. “We know that exercise can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Specifically, it is believed to increase blood flow to the brain. And there is a saying “What is good for the heart is good for the brain”.

Forbes says that research shows that brisk walking “would be a great example” of the type of exercise that can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in older adults.

Bobalik notes that the less physically active you are over time, the worse your brain health becomes. “Walking regularly is one of the most important things older people can do to maintain good mental and physical health,” he says.

“Evidence-based studies show that moderate walking increases the size of the hippocampus, which improves memory and recall,” he adds.

“More walking in general can have mental health and mood benefits,” says Shah, adding that it also increases endurance.

Forbes also suggests walking with friends to increase social interaction, another no brainer. “If seniors have a family member or friend they can walk with regularly, it’s a great way to get two benefits in one,” she recommends.

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