Study: Walking Is a Brain Exercise Too

I am often teased for my stubborn habit of traveling by foot. I often walk the 3 mi. home from work rather than take the subway. When I visit less pedestrian-friendly cities, kindhearted motorists regularly pull over and offer me a ride, assuming that my car has broken down or I’m in need of some help.


But for me, walking is a good opportunity to process the day and let my mind wander without the oppression of the endless to-do list that awaits me at home. Plus, it helps my back recover from a day spent bent in front of a computer screen. Health-wise, I have always assumed I’d have the last laugh, and now there’s even more evidence on my side. (More on TIME’s Health Checkup tells you how to live 100 years).


A study published in Neurology has found that the simple act of walking may improve memory in old age. As we age, our brains shrink and the shrinkage is associated with dementia and loss of cognitive functions such as memory. To test whether physical activity could mitigate some of these degenerative effects, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh tracked the physical activity of 299 healthy men and women with an average age of 78. The participants’ activity ranged anywhere from walking 0 blocks to 300 blocks (up to 30 miles) per week.


Nine years later, the walkers underwent brain scans, which revealed that those who had walked more had greater brain volume than those who walked less. Four years after that, the volunteers were tested again — this time for dementia. Among the group, 116 people showed signs of memory loss or dementia. Those who had walked the most — at least 72 city blocks (or about 7 mi.) each week — were half as likely to have cognitive problems as those who walked the least.


The findings are in line with past studies linking physical activity with brain function, but dementia experts say there’s not enough data yet to prescribe exercise to prevent memory loss. It’s also too soon to say whether exercise may prevent dementia or simply delay it in people who would eventually develop it anyway. But when it comes to Alzheimer’s, even a short delay could mean great gains in quality of life. MSNBC reports:


“Even if we are delaying [Alzheimer’s disease] by several months or years, that’s a significant improvement in what we know already, and a change in costs for treating health care,” [study author Kirk] Erickson said. Delaying the condition could also ease the emotional burden and problems that come along with it, for both patients and their families, he said.

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