The brain health benefits of walking, and exercise in general, are often overlooked. Most people start an exercise program primarily to lose weight, tone muscles and improve heart, and cardiovascular function.
These are great motivators, but what impact do exercises like walking have on our brain?
In recent years, numerous studies have demonstrated a strong mind-body connection. In fact, it’s been shown that physical exercise, even something as simple as walking, can have a direct and profound positive impact on our brain.
According to Dr. Ratey in his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:
“Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects.. the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.”
So, just how does walking benefit the brain?
Key Brain Health Benefits Of Walking
Walking has been shown to have the following brain health benefits:
- Increases blood flow to the brain
- Boosts your mood and helps reduce anxiety
- Lowers risk of developing Alzheimers symptoms
- Reduces inflammation
- Boosts creativity
Increases Blood Flow To The Brain
Walking increases the blood flow throughout our whole body, including our brain. This helps to ensure fresh oxygen to our brain cells in order to thrive as well as to help grow new ones.
Our brain needs a continual supply of oxygen. In fact, our brain uses 20% of all the oxygen in the body.
When brain cells do not receive enough fresh oxygen they die off rapidly! The negative results of this are often permanent.
One of the most important brain health benefits of walking is that it helps get blood pumping throughout our body and up to the brain.
Boosts Your Mood And Helps Reduce Anxiety
Physical exercise, including walking, helps to boost feel-good brain chemicals such as neurotransmitters, endorphins, and endocannabinoids. These brain chemicals help to boost your mood and reduce feelings of anxiety.
I know in my own life that walking and jogging have helped me tremendously get through some very tough times (divorce, cancer).
So if you’re feeling stressed or depressed, try going for a walk – you’ll feel better afterward.
Lowers The Risk of Developing Alzheimer’s Symptoms
A 10-year study showed that walking the equivalent of 5-6 miles total per week helps to preserve brain volume and was associated with a 50% reduction in Alzheimer’s risk.
Brain volume, or a number of brain-cell connections we have, is an indicator of brain health because when brain cells die, the brain shrinks.
As a result, one key brain health benefits of walking is that it helps to preserve and even build our brain volume and this, in turn, helps lower the risk of developing symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s.
Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found in one study that just 20 minutes of walking at a fast pace resulted in anti-inflammatory effects in our body.
Inflammation can lead to lowered cognition which is why when you have a cold or flu you often don’t feel 100% mentally. It can also lead to more serious issues in the brain such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
One of the key brain health benefits of walking is that it helps to reduce inflammation in the body and improve cognition which then helps reduce the risk of future mental decline.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that people did better at coming up with new ideas while walking than they did just sitting.
They also found that this brain health benefit of walking carried over for some time afterward. In other words, they found that those who sat after walking did better than those who just sat the whole time.
So, if you need a quick brain boost or need to come up with some new or creative ideas, go for a walk.
Improving The Brain Health Benefits of Walking
The following is a list of ways we add to the health benefits of walking:
- Sunlight exposure
- Walk in nature
- Listen to music
- Walk with others
- Walk uphill
- Walk a dirt trail
- Add neurobic activity
Walking outside exposes us to sunlight which helps build vitamin D and reset our internal time clock.
A study published in 2010 showed that 42% of the adults tested (4,495) were low in the sunshine vitamin (vitamin D).
There is growing evidence today linking low vitamin D levels to increased risks of Alzheimer’s, dementia, cognitive decline and even certain cancers.
Walking outside in the sun helps to boost your vitamin D levels.
Another brain health benefit of walking outside is that natural sunlight enters your eyes. You need a certain amount of sunlight to enter your eyes each day in order to keep your bodies internal time clock in check. It does this via a system of brain chemicals, such as melatonin, which are synchronized by sunlight.
One reason people can’t sleep well is that their internal time clock is not being set properly due to a lack of sunlight. All it takes is ~ 30 min of sunlight to do the trick.
So whenever possible, try to walk outside and get some sun in order to build and maintain your vitamin D levels as well as properly synchronize your bodies internal time clock.
Walk In Nature
Walking in nature can help you think less negatively and boost short-term memory.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that after a walk in nature people afterward were not dwelling on the negative aspects of their lives as much as they had been before the walk.
Another brain health benefit of walking in nature as opposed to say a busy street is that studies have shown a walk in nature can improve short-term memory by as much as 20%.
To help you become a more positive thinker and to improve your short term memory, try to incorporate walks in nature as much as possible.
Listen To Music
Numerous studies have shown that listening to music stimulates and lights up the brain in very positive ways. It has been shown to help reduce anxiety, depression, blood pressure. and improve cognitive function.
To further improve the brain health benefits of walking, try plugging in some good tunes while you walk. This will help boost your mood and improve your brain function at the same time!
Walk With Others
Several studies have shown that one of the keys to maintaining brain fitness as you age is spending time engaging in social activities.
One study called the 90+ Study included more than 14,000 people aged 65 and older, and more than 1,000 aged 90 or older. They found that socialization helped them live into old age without a trace of Alzheimer disease or dementia. They regularly spent time with others engaged in social activities.
To improve the brain health benefit of walking, try to solicit others to walk with you from time to time and give your brain a little extra stimulation.
Walking uphill is a safe way to boost the cardiovascular benefits associated with walking.
No need to pound your knees jogging, running or sprinting to get your heart pumping. Simply find a good hill with a path and start walking. The incline of the hill adds to the difficulty of the exercise without straining your joints.
If you can’t find a convenient hill, you can always get on a treadmill and set the incline to get your heart pumping.
For a non-impact way to add to the health benefits of walking, try walking uphill once in a while. Your heart, lungs, and brain will thank you later.
Walk A Dirt Trail
Walking a dirt or unimproved trail is more mentally and physically difficult than walking a paved path. This is because of the extra attention needed for each step. You need to be observant of the path, rocks, and potholes in order to maintain balance.
Walking a dirt or unimproved trail heightens your attention and activates more brain-cell connections. This adds to the brain health benefits of walking in general.
Add Neurobic Activity
Adding in neurobic activity to your walk will help you build new brain-cell connections and strengthen existing ones.
A neurobic activity is any activity that you normally do but done differently. For example, taking a different route or walking your dog as well.
My favorite neurobic activity to do while walking is to add in a couple minutes of walking backward.
Adding in neurobic activities really causes you to focus more attentively as well as fully engage and heighten your senses. This helps to generate new brain-cell connections and strengthen the ones you already have.
How Much Is Enough?
Studies show that as little as 20 min of walking can have profound benefits on your body and brain. For maximum benefit, a total of 5 to 6 miles cumulative per week is enough.
Any amount exercise is better than none. Even a simple stroll around the block will do wonders for you, your brain and your outlook.
Walking is generally an easy exercise which can lead to other forms of more strenuous exercise. It’s an excellent starting point to help you build a physical base and form a regular habit of exercise. From there, you can add in other forms of exercise such as jogging, strength training, etc.
No matter what, walking is something we can usually easily do, anytime, anyplace, and for free!
The brain health benefits of walking are many and often overlooked. Walking helps to condition and protect our brain from diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. In addition, it can boost our mood, reduce anxiety and improve cognition, creativity, and short-term memory.
Walking is easy to do and reaps numerous rewards physically, mentally and emotionally.
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So, why not take a short walk outside, breath some fresh air and get some oxygenated blood pumping up to your brain? When you come back, leave a reply and let me know your thoughts! 😉