What Walking May Do for Your Brain

Elderly Couple Walking to keep memory sharp

June 28, 2023

Walking several times a week may help to keep memory sharp as we age, even if we don’t start exercising until later in life, according to a new report. The study found that people in their 70s and 80s who started a walking exercise program performed better on cognitive tests and developed stronger connections between areas of the brain critical for memory and thinking skills.

The study was small, involving only 33 adults, some of whom had mild cognitive impairment, a serious form of memory loss that often progresses to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. But the findings add to growing evidence that walking and other forms of exercise can bolster brain health and may help to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

“Historically, the brain networks we studied in this research show deterioration over time in people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease,” said study leader J. Carson Smith, a kinesiology professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “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.” The findings were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports.

For the study, researchers recruited adults who didn’t exercise regularly. They ranged in age from 71 to 85. About half had mild cognitive impairment.

Participants underwent an array of brain and cognitive tests. In one, they were asked to read a short story, then repeat the story aloud, recalling as many details as possible. They also underwent functional MRI brain scans, which recorded the activity of various brain pathways, including those affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

The participants were then put in a supervised treadmill exercise program, in which they walked on a treadmill for about 30 minutes four days a week.

After 12 weeks, researchers repeated the tests. Significant improvements in the participants’ abilities to recall story details were seen following the exercise regimen. Brain scans after exercise treatment also revealed stronger nerve cell connections and communication between areas of the brain critical for memory and thinking skills.

“The brain activity was stronger and more synchronized, demonstrating exercise actually can induce the brain’s ability to change and adapt,” Dr. Smith said. “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.”

Numerous studies have shown that walking is good for your health, including the health of your brain. A large analysis from 2022 found, for example, that walking 10,000 steps a day cut the risk of dementia by up to 50 percent. But walking less, just 3,800 steps a day, also had substantial benefits, reducing dementia risk by 25 percent.

And as this latest study suggests, it’s never too late to start. Even those in their 70s and 80s who had been sedentary and showed signs of cognitive deficits and memory loss showed benefits from walking.

Check with your doctor before starting an exercise program, particularly if you have other medical issues and haven’t exercised regularly before. Exercise may not only help to keep the mind sharp. It can also help to lower the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, both risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, and let you live a longer, healthier life.

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: Junyeon Won, Kristy A. Nielson, J. Carson Smith: “Large-Scale Network Connectivity and Cognitive Function Changes After Exercise Training in Older Adults with Intact Cognition and Mild Cognitive Impairment.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Reports, May 12, 2023


Alzheimer's Articles