Want to Keep Your Memory Sharp? Try Orienteering

June 12, 2024

Looking for fun new ways to help keep your memory sharp? Try orienteering, a sport that combines exercise with cognitive challenges by navigating through a series of checkpoints across unfamiliar terrain. While many studies show that exercise may improve memory and thinking skills and help to lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a new study found that orienteering may be better for the brain than exercise alone.
For the study, researchers at McMaster University in Canada enrolled 63 active, healthy young adults who had no orienteering experience. They ranged in age from 18 to 30. They were randomly divided into three groups.
Some were instructed to navigate an orienteering course on the university’s campus, either while walking or running. Participants used a detailed map and a compass to get from a starting point to a finishing point, while checking in at various points along the way. A control group exercised vigorously without having to navigate.
The researchers used blood tests to measure levels of lactate, a substance in the blood that rises as exercise intensity increases. They also measured a brain chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, levels of which also rise with exercise. Sometimes referred to as “Miracle-Gro” for the brain, BDNF bulks up the brain, prompting the creation and maturation of brain cell connections and, in some regions, of new brain cells. In addition, the researchers tested memory performance before and after the sessions.
The researchers found that running increased lactate, BDNF and memory to a greater degree than walking. Spatial memory skills, in particular, increased the most in those who ran while orienteering. The more vigorous the orienteering, the greater the benefits.
“Remarkably, even a single orienteering session improved spatial memory in our study participants,” said lead author Emma Waddington, a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster who conducted the work with colleagues at Western University. “This suggests that participating in orienteering, even infrequently, could enhance spatial abilities, with the potential to delay their decline with age.” The findings were published in PLoS One.
The study was small and involved only young adults. But the researchers speculate that orienteering may be beneficial for people of any age. The sport poses cognitive challenges and requires focused attention and deduction. This form of navigation employs the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is more susceptible to age-related decline than others. Degeneration in the hippocampus can impair learning, memory and spatial cognition, and it is one of the first brain regions affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Losing the ability to find one’s way is among the earliest and most common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Increasing dependency on phones featuring navigation guided by GPS in recent years may mean that most people no longer use their map and wayfinding skills, the authors say. These skills were finely honed in the days of hunting and gathering. Disuse could possibly lead to spatial memory deficits and a diminished sense of direction, which orienteering could help to revive. 
To help get the brain benefits or orienteering, incorporate aspects of the sport into your daily life. Turn off the GPS from time to time, and use a map to find your way when traveling. Challenge yourself spatially by taking a new route during a walk, run or bike ride.
Orienteering can be enjoyed by people of any age, and of any degree of fitness. For additional information, including local resources and events, visit the Orienteering USA web site at orienteeringusa.org. 
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D. Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University. 
Source: Emma E. Waddington, David J. Allison, Emilie M. Calabrese, et al: “Orienteering combines vigorous-intensity exercise with navigation to improve human cognition and increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor.” PLoS One, May 22, 2024

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