Walking exercises the brain as well

This post is related to the one a few days back which reported on the beneficial effect of meditation on the development and aging of the brain. As a person ages, the part of the brain knows as the hippocampus shrinks, especially in late adulthood.  Since the hippocampus has functions which are related to memory, this shrinkage can lead to impaired memory and increased risk for dementia. So it is interesting to read the results of a study which shows that the simple act of walking may improve memory in old age.

In this study, the research subjects exercised by taking three, 40-minute walks each week over the period of a year, and were compared with a control group  in a number of ways including memory, levels of ‘brain derived neurotropic factor’ (a substance that stimulates new brain cell development and brain cell communication), as well as the size of  the hippocampus. It was found that the “walking” groups – as compared to the ‘control’ group –  experienced an increase in volume of the hippocampus (the control group saw a small reduction in volume of this brain structure), as well as higher levels of brain derived neurotropic factor and improved memory.

This study provides good evidence that even a quite low-intensity exercise can lead to improved brain function, and reverse hippocampal volume loss in late adulthood, and backs up earlier research from the University of Pittsburgh which tracked the physical activity of 299 healthy men and women who had different walking habits. When brain scans were taken after nine years on the programme, it was revealed that those who had walked more had greater brain volume than those who walked less. Four years later, the same tests revealed that those who had walked the most — about 7 miles each week — were half as likely to have cognitive problems as those who walked the least.

Erickson KI, et al. “Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory”. PNAS 31 January 2011

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