A brisk walk is more than just a great cardio workout; it benefits the brain, too. According to new research published in the journal Neurology, walking increases blood flow to the brain, which can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Researchers followed 160 older adults who showed evidence of cognitive decline (but not dementia) and found participating in aerobic exercises like walking for at least 30 minutes three times per week helped improve their cognitive abilities.
Study co-author James A. Blumenthal, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center notes that exercise could help increase brain volume and blood flow, which appear to have an impact on the executive functions of the brain, including attention span, focus and memory. “More active or physically fit individuals perform better on tasks involving executive functioning compared to sedentary ones,” says Blumenthal.
Some additional research found walking five miles per week had a protective effect on the structure of the brain during the decade-long study. In particular, older adults with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease had slower decline in memory loss over five years compared to those who walked less.
Moreover, a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, found a link between walking speed and cognitive function. Those who walked at a speed of less than 5 kilometers (3 miles) per hour were considered at risk of developing dementia later in life.
“From a biological perspective, there are several mechanisms we think could explain the link,” says Ruth Hackett, PhD, research fellow at University College London. “Walking and cognition rely on similar brain regions, mainly in the prefrontal cortices [and], considering this overlap, it is plausible that a slowing of walking speed is a marker of decline in these brain areas.”
It’s never too late to start a walking program in the hope of warding off cognitive decline, says Blumenthal. “[Walking] is a simple, cost-effective way to reduce long-term health risks,” Hackett adds. “You can try and add more walking into your day-to-day life by doing things such as getting off the train or bus a stop early, taking the stairs instead of the [elevator] and briskly walking short distances instead of driving. Engaging in aerobic and resistance forms of exercise not only helps improve physical health, but they can also improve cognitive function.”