You’re likely aware of the physical health benefits of exercise – it helps to maintain a healthy weight, lowers blood pressure, decreases inflammation in the body, reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and heart attack, and even decreases the risk of developing certain cancers and diabetes. What you may not know is that exercise is also important for your brain health. Regular exercise has been shown to minimize the risk of developing anxiety and depression, and there is increasing evidence that shows that exercise may slow cognitive decline, and may also reduce the risk of developing dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.
The Aging Population and Associated Health Concerns
The worldwide population is aging and according to the Administration for Community living, the number of people over the age of 65 was 49.2 million in 2016, and is expected to reach 98 million by 2040. With the significant increase in older individuals expected in the coming years, geriatric health is quickly becoming a critical issue for medical professionals.
Research has shown that older adults are likely to suffer with a variety of health issues that are associated with various chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Additionally, older adults tend to report high levels of cognitive issues, including gradual memory loss, decreased attention span, and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. These cognitive issues have the potential to lead to a variety of psychological problems including anxiety, depression, isolation, and loneliness, which decrease mental health and quality of life.
Walking for Improved Brain Health
There is mounting evidence that supports the idea that physical activity improves both the physical and mental health of older individuals. Various physical activities have been evaluated, and leisure walking has been found to be the most cost-effective and easy to perform activity as it doesn’t require any specific equipment or training.
Research has found that leisure walking is associated with the following brain benefits in older adults:
- Increased participation in physical activity.
- Improvement in depression symptoms.
- Decreased stress and anxiety.
- Preservation or improvement of cognitive health, including improved memory.
- Improvement in psychological health.
- Reduced pain severity.
When looking at intensity of physical activity, researchers have found that moderate to high walking intensity is associated with decreased depression symptoms, and also found that the amount of walking had an] influence on mental health.
Recent Research on Walking for Brain Health
A recent year-long study investigated the effects of brisk walking on blood flow to the brain in older adults at a high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. This study further supports the existing evidence that regular exercise may improve brain health and help to slow down the progression of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
This study included 70 older adults, ranging in age from 55 to 80, with mild cognitive impairment (MDI), which is characterized by marked memory loss that in many cases progresses to Alzheimer’s disease. The study participants were divided into two groups – group one was assigned to a supervised aerobic exercise program that involved 3, 25-to-30-minute, weekly exercise sessions with a 5-minute warm-up and 5-minute cool down. Over the course of the study, they increased to 4 or 5 exercise sessions each week, lasting 30 to 40 minutes, and included moderate intensity activities including brisk uphill walking. The second group was assigned to a stretching and toning program that included arm and leg stretching as well as elastic banding for resistance training. Group 2 did not have any aerobic training that elevated their heart rates.
The results found that 48 of the 70 participants completed the year-long program. Participants in the aerobic exercise group showed decreased stiffness in the blood vessels of the neck, and increased blood flow to the brain, while participants in the stretch and tone group did not show these improvements. The study also found that greater aerobic fitness improvements resulted in greater improvement in blood flow to the brain. Decreased blood vessel stiffness and improved blood flow to the brain has been associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.
Sticking to a Walking Routine
Getting into a regular walking routine may be difficult initially; here are some tips to help get you started:
- Ask a friend of family member to join you.
- Join a community walking group.
- Change up your walking route to keep it interesting.
- Listen to music or a podcast while walking.
- Invest in quality walking shoes and keep them easily accessible.
- Buy wearable technology that monitors how many steps you take (and challenge a friend if you can!).
- Set attainable walking goals and reward yourself when you meet them.
- Walk to perform your errands.
- When shopping, park further away from the entrance and take the stairs rather than the elevator/escalator.
Physical activity has been shown to provide many physical health benefits, and evidence is mounting that shows that physical exercise also provides brain health benefits as well. Leisure walking is an accessible and cost-effective activity to incorporate into your daily life to boost your brain health and help to ward off dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.