Did you know walking benefits your brain directly? Most people are aware that walking is a healthy activity. For example, it can help you lose weight, keep your muscles and joints strong, and it's good for your heart.
But as research shows, going on a brisk walk boosts the health of your brain, too. And it does this in a very direct fashion - by increasing blood flow to the brain.
So if you're looking for more ways to keep your brain healthy as you grow older, consider including a long walk in your daily activities.
Going for a walk is a free and low impact form of aerobic exercise, and it's good for your brain and overall health.
We now know walking elevates cerebral blood flow through a straightforward mechanism. According to research performed at New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU), a "pressure wave" is created in the bloodstream as you take each step.
In plain language, as you walk your feet impact the ground over and over, and this pushes a little more blood up toward your head. Running, by the way, which is higher impact, boosts cerebral blood flow even more.
Every step you take helps elevate cerebral blood flow. In other words, walking "pumps up" the blood flow to your mind.1
Why is a steady, healthy blood flow beneficial for the brain? For two main reasons:
1) It increases the brain's supply of glucose, oxygen, and other nutrients, and
2) It removes waste products from brain tissue.
First, the blood brings oxygen, glucose and other nutrients to the brain, which are vital for the brain's health. Second, the blood washes away brain metabolic wastes such as amyloid-beta protein released into the brain's blood vessels.
- American Physiological Society2
As you may know, amyloid protein is associated with Alzheimer's disease. Keeping your brain cleared of amyloid waste may lower your odds of developing dementia.
A study published in the journal Experimental Biology found that in older women, brisk walking several times a week (for 30-50 minutes) improved blood flow to the brain by up to 15%. According to the researchers, that is statistically significant.3
"Exercise is medicine," said Rong Zhang, lead researcher in the study. "When you increase blood flow, that increases the oxygen supply, glucose and other nutrients to the brain, and that makes your neurons happier."4
Add Walking to Your Lifestyle. For some time, I've incorporated a daily walk into my normal routine. All year round, I walk the streets near my home for about 20 minutes a day.
I usually make it a little more strenuous by rucking, which just means wearing a backpack filled with weights as you walk. I also like to listen to audio books during my walks.
I should point out that walking has been linked to memory improvement in older individuals. During a study at the National Academy of Science (NAS), it was discovered that walking increases hippocampus size and may boost memory, or at least protect it, as we age. The hippocampus is a brain structure closely associated with memory.
In the NAS study, one year of brisk walking by older adults caused their hippocampus to grow by 2 percent. They walked 40 minutes, three days a week. The control group that did not walk saw their hippocampus shrink by 1 percent, due to normal aging.5
Because of walking's many health benefits, including its direct helpfulness to the brain, I encourage you to find a way to take walks on a regular basis. Be sure to check with your doctor first to make sure you are healthy enough to do so.
There are variety of ways you can get started with a walking program. For instance, you might start a dedicated fitness program that includes brisk walking; wear a weighted backpack and listen to audio books (as I do these days); take your dog along with you on the walks; walk while you work indoors; or simply ask a friend to join you for company and conversation to pass the time on your walks.
If you are in reasonably good shape, there's sure to be a way to add healthy walks to your lifestyle. Get creative with it, and make walking something you look forward to. Your brain will thank you for it!
References for Walking Benefits the Brain:
1. Experimental Biology 2017. "How walking benefits the brain: Researchers show that foot's impact helps control, increase the amount of blood sent to the brain." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/04/170424141340.htm (accessed May 4, 2017).
2. Krupa, Donna. "Moderate Exercise Improves Brain Blood Flow in Elderly Women: Brisk walking several times per week ups bestows benefits in just 3 months." Press Release, The American Physiological Society. (2011) http://www.the-aps.org/mm/hp/Audiences/Public-Press/Archive/2011/9.html
3. Rong Zhang, et al. "Aerobic exercise training Increases brain perfusion in elderly women." April 2011, The FASEB Journal. Vol. 25 no. 1 Supplement 1057.3 http://www.fasebj.org/content/25/1_Supplement/1057.3
4. Jacobs, Mary. "The key to brain health? Get moving, experts say." Dallas News, October 2011. https://www.dallasnews.com/life/healthy-living/2011/10/19/the-key-to-brain-health-get-moving-experts-say
5. Erickson, Kirk; Voss, Michele; et al. "Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory." Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), Jan. 31, 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1015950108
Last Updated: 06/11/2020