How a Short Walk Helps Your Brain

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

Regular readers of this blog have undoubtedly seen the evidence that physical exercise is good for the brain. Most of the research in this area is based on benefits associated with improved cardio-vascular health and a more consistent, oxygen-rich supply of blood to the brain.

Now, according to research from the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois, published online in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, it appears that certain neurological mechanisms also play a role in translating physical exercise into better brain health.

This research recruited a group of sedentary adults aged 59 to 80 and assigned them to one of two groups. Members of the first group walked for 40 minutes at their own pace, three times per week, for one year. Members of the other group did stretching and toning exercises with similar frequency and intensity during the same period. Cognition was measured in each of the two groups at the start, mid-point, and conclusion of the study.

As expected, the walking group demonstrated significant improvements from their baseline scores. They also showed much greater improvement than those in the stretching and toning group.

The researchers were also seeking to demonstrate any neurological benefits, in addition to the expected vascular benefits provided by the exercise. To accomplish this, they used MRI to measure activity across circuits in the subject's brains. They noted an interesting finding with regard to the default mode network (DMN) which is the circuit in the brain that is most active when the brain is at rest and relatively unengaged in other activities.

In healthy brains, the DMN quickly deactivates when the person engages in a task that requires their concentration. However, in older and/or sicker brains, the DMN tends to stay active and interferes with one's attempt to focus on a more challenging task. In this study, the subjects who walked for a year showed a significantly better ability to deactivate the DMN and focus on other tasks. This was true compared to the stretching and toning group but also true compared to their own performances at the start of the study.

This is great news on two levels. We already knew that physical exercise was beneficial to both our physical and mental health. Now it seems that a light work-out, as simple as walking at one's own pace for 40 minutes per walk, three times per week, is adequate to produce a meaningful benefit. Furthermore, the benefit is derived from two distinct mechanisms, one physical and the other neurological.
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