The Positive Effects of Brisk Walking for the Aging Brain

Older couple out for a brisk walk

As reported by Harvard Medical School, researchers say that a new case of dementia is detected every four seconds worldwide. And those same researchers say that, by the year 2050, more than 11.5 million people in the world will suffer from dementia.

How to improve brain function and stave off this threatening wave of dementia?

One right answer is exercise. More specifically for seniors: brisk walking. 

At least to some degree, we’re all aware that exercise is good for our physical health. It’s common knowledge that regular physical activity reduces the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

How does exercise benefit my health?

Most of us know that exercise helps lose weight, lowers blood pressure, prevents depression, and, perhaps most importantly, makes us look hotter.

But most people don’t seem to know that the health benefits of walking help us retain our memory and thinking skills. To remedy that, here’s a non-exclusive list of brain health benefits derived from aerobic exercises, such as a vigorous walk.

1. Exercise rejuvenates the cerebral vascular system

Aging isn’t kind. Unfortunately, as we age, our arteries stiffen and our hearts weaken. The result? A diminished flow of blood to the brain and corresponding memory loss, coupled with cognitive decline. And, ultimately, the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease.

Fortunately, regular aerobic exercise makes our arteries more supple and our hearts stronger. This results in increased blood flow to the brain and corresponding increases in brain health, memory retention, and cognitive function.

The latest news arrived less than a week ago when the New York Times published an article entitled “Brisk Walking Is Good for the Aging Brain.” The story describes a recent study focused on a group of 70 older adults with early signs of memory loss, aka mild cognitive impairment. 

The participants in the study raised their cognitive scores after they started walking energetically and frequently. The gain in brain function was attributed to an increase in the healthy flow of blood to their brains. Researchers attributed the increased blood flow to aerobic physical activity.

Diagram of the hippocampus

The beneficial physical activity doesn’t have to be walking; it can be swimming, bike riding, dancing, or hiking. But it does have to be aerobic, which means it’s energetic enough to elevate your pulse, raise your respiration rate, and induce perspiration. Of all the activities available to most seniors, dedicated walking is by far the most accessible.

Swimming requires a large hole in the ground and enough water to fill it. Bicycles can be expensive and, especially in an urban environment, carry significant risk. Hiking requires access to trails. And it’s hard to work up a sweat dancing without proper music and instruction.

All you need for a satisfying solitary walk is a good pair of shoes and some determination.

 2. Exercise makes your brain bigger

A 2015 research team at the University of British Columbia found that regular physical activity, the kind that pumps up your pulse, makes you breathe hard, and makes you break a sweat, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that is most directly involved in verbal memory and the acquisition of new learning. So, an increase in the size of the hippocampus indicates a corresponding boost in brainpower.

3. Exercise brings more blood to your brain

A study conducted at the New Mexico Highlands University School of Medicine and presented at the American Physiological Society annual meeting at Experimental Biology in 2017 also demonstrated the positive impact of exercise. Researchers used ultrasound to show that the dynamic effects of physical exertions such as walking, running, or cycling create hydraulic waveforms. These dramatically increase the central blood pressures that drive blood to the brain.

The participants in the study raised their cognitive scores after they started walking frequently. As in previously mentioned studies, the gain in brain function was attributed to the increase in blood flow to the brain. Which researchers attributed to aerobic physical activity.

4. Exercise promotes healthy neurons

Diagram of brain neurons

An increased flow of blood to the brain can also promote another vital aspect of mental well-being. That’s the generation, protection, and maintenance of new neurons.

Neurons are the brain cells that do all the heavy cognitive lifting. They are connected to each other at junctions known as synapses. A proven theory known as synaptic plasticity holds that changes necessary to the maintenance of healthy cognition take place at the synapses, when one neuron communicates with, potentially, a multitude of other neurons.

A protein known as a brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is, as its name indicates, generated in the brain. The brain-derived neurotrophic factor promotes the survival of healthy neurons by playing a crucial role in their generation, growth, maturation, and maintenance.

The BDNF protein helps regulate the synaptic plasticity which is vital for learning and memory.

BDNF is essential for brain health

Studies have shown that exercise increases BDNF in several brain regions. The most robust and enduring BDNF response to regular exercise occurs in the hippocampus. That’s where additional BDNF is most needed because that’s where a large proportion of human thought, memory, and learning takes place.

How much physical activity is required to maintain a healthy brain?

Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like walking, jogging, biking, or swimming) per week. Make sure that your exercise level is strenuous enough to elevate both your heart rate and your respiration rate. Break a sweat.

But be sure to talk with your physician before you establish your new exercise regimen.

Mental exercise is also good for the aging brain 

Try new, mentally stimulating activities that you enjoy. Adopt new hobbies, join a book club, or learn new skills. Solving crossword puzzles or math problems will keep your brain honed.

There is a strong link between the practice of brisk walking and the maintenance of healthy cognition. And all you have to do is stay active.

Why choose University Foot and Ankle Institute for your foot and ankle care?

If you are experiencing any type of foot, toe, or ankle problems, we’re always here to help. At UFAI, our mission is to provide the best available treatment techniques. We want our patients to be pain-free and back to their daily activities as soon as possible.

Our nationally recognized, board-certified Doctors of Podiatric Medicine (DPMs) and foot and ankle surgeons offer the most advanced care and the highest success rates in the nation. We are leaders in the research and treatment of all foot and ankle conditions.

For more information, or to schedule a consultation, please call (877) 736-6001 or make an appointment online now.

At UFAI, we take our patients’ safety seriously. Our clinics’ and surgery centers’ Covid-19 patient safety procedures exceed all CDC recommendations during this coronavirus pandemic. Masks are required in our institutes at all times.

We are conveniently located throughout Southern California and the Los Angeles area. Our doctors are available at locations in or near: Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach, Northridge, Downtown Los Angeles, Westlake Village, Granada Hills, and Valencia, California.

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