A groundbreaking study conducted by the University of Maryland School of Public Health has revealed the remarkable benefits of regular exercise, specifically walking, for the health of our brain. According to the researchers, the positive cognitive impacts of walking are especially noticeable in older adults.
The study unveiled how this simple, low-impact physical activity can fortify connections within three pivotal brain networks, including one associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This discovery adds a significant dimension to a growing collection of evidence which confirms the powerful role of regular exercise in promoting brain health and delaying the onset of cognitive decline.
The study, recently published in the Journal for Alzheimer’s Disease Reports, scrutinized the narrative recall abilities of older adults who have been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), as well as those with normal brain function. MCI is characterized by a mild decline in mental faculties such as memory, reasoning, and judgment, and is considered a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
Professor J. Carson Smith, the study’s principal investigator, explained: “Historically, the brain networks we studied in this research show deterioration over time in people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. They become disconnected, and as a result, people lose their ability to think clearly and remember things. We’re demonstrating that exercise training strengthens these connections.”
Professor Smith’s previous studies have also suggested that walking can reduce cerebral blood flow and improve brain functionality in older adults diagnosed with MCI.
In this new study, thirty-three participants, aged between 71 and 85, were asked to walk on a treadmill under supervision for four days a week over a period of 12 weeks. Prior to and beyond this exercise regimen, the researchers evaluated the participants’ recall abilities by asking them to read a short story and then repeat it out loud with as much detail as possible.
In addition to this, the researchers employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor and measure changes in communication within and between the three crucial brain networks responsible for cognitive functions. These networks include:
The default mode network, which activates when a person isn’t engaged in a specific task. This network is linked to the hippocampus, a brain region first affected by Alzheimer’s, and the first location where Alzheimer’s and amyloid plaques appear.
The frontoparietal network, which regulates decisions made when a person is completing a task. This network also plays a role in memory retention.
The salience network, which monitors the external world and stimuli, and determines what requires attention. It also facilitates the transition between networks to optimize performance.
Post 12 weeks of regular walking, the tests were repeated and the researchers observed substantial enhancements in the story recall abilities of the participants.
“The brain activity was stronger and more synchronized, demonstrating exercise actually can induce the brain’s ability to change and adapt,” noted Professor Smith. “These results provide even more hope that exercise may be useful as a way to prevent or help stabilize people with mild cognitive impairment and maybe, over the long term, delay their conversion to Alzheimer’s dementia.”
Furthermore, the researchers observed intensified activity within the default mode network, within the salience network, and in the connections between the three networks. This exciting revelation highlights the potential of regular physical activity as a powerful tool to bolster cognitive health and slow the progression of debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Walking is a simple and accessible form of exercise that offers a plethora of health benefits beyond its positive impact on brain health. Here are some of the additional health advantages of walking:
Regular walking increases the heart rate, strengthens the heart, and enhances overall cardiovascular fitness. Numerous studies have shown that walking reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.
Walking helps to lower blood pressure and reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing levels of HDL (good) cholesterol. This leads to improved blood circulation and overall heart health.
Regular walking, being a weight-bearing exercise, can slow the loss of bone mass for those with osteoporosis. It improves bone density and decreases the risk of fractures.
Walking burns calories, and thus can contribute to maintaining a healthy weight. It boosts metabolic rate and helps in fat burning, which is crucial for weight management and obesity prevention.
Walking, especially speed walking or walking uphill, can strengthen the leg muscles, improve endurance, and increase flexibility.
Walking, like other forms of exercise, releases endorphins, often known as “feel-good hormones.” This can help to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, boost mood, and promote a sense of well-being.
Regular walking has been found to help lower blood sugar levels and overall help in the management of type 2 diabetes.
Regular walking helps improve gastric mobility, aiding the digestive process. It can help prevent constipation and other digestion-related problems.
Walking can boost the immune system, leading to a better defense mechanism against various diseases and infections.
Walking, especially when done in the morning or afternoon, can help individuals fall asleep more quickly and enjoy better quality sleep.
The beauty of walking is its simplicity and versatility; it requires no special equipment and can be done almost anywhere – around your neighborhood, in parks, on a treadmill, or even while shopping. Incorporating walking into your daily routine can lead to substantial health improvements over time.