Walking— especially if brisk — has the potential not just to improve health and lengthen lifespan but also to prolong memory.
That was the message from a research project at the University of Texas Southwestern (UTSW) that pinpointed a direct correlation between walking and memory function.
Another research project, a massive compilation of 196 studies involving more than 30 million people, published recently by the British Journal of Medicine, confirmed that the more individuals engage in non-occupational physical activity — including walking — the greater likelihood they have to protect themselves against early mortality, cancer and cardio-vascular diseases.
“It’s really amazing the amount of benefits you get for a relatively minor effort,” said Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, chair of Preventive Cardiology at the Mayo Clinic.
The UTSW study, conducted in 2020, showed that older and middle-aged individuals increased their cognitive performance after beginning brisk walking, although the benefits may take up to a year to be realized.
“This is part of a growing body of evidence linking exercise with brain health,” said the chief of the UTSW research, Dr. Rong Zhang. a professor of neurology at the university’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute. “We’ve shown for the first time in a randomized trial in these older adults that exercise gets more blood flowing to your brain.”
Many older adults suffer mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, as they age and blood flows more slowly to the brain. MCI diminishes reasoning and decision-making skills, as well as memory.
Invigorating walking, however, improves blood flow to the brain, which helps preserve cognitive functioning. That holds true both for those who already have experienced some loss of brain function and those who have not yet are still forgetful at times.
“You need to make an effort to get up that heart rate, where it’s a little more challenging,” Zhang said, adding that it helps to feel a little shortness of breath and conversation becomes more difficult during the walk.
The British study, meanwhile, reported, “One in 10 premature deaths could have been prevented if everyone achieved even half the recommended level of physical activity.” The recommended level is 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical aerobic activity, so half would be 75 minutes a week.
“Higher activity levels were associated with lower risk,” the British research found.
“Our findings suggest an appreciably lower risk of mortality, cardiovascular diseases and cancers from the equivalent of 75 min/week or less of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity,” the British researchers reported.
The UTSW study involved 30 men and women from 55 and 80 who were diagnosed with MCI.
“There is still a lot we don’t know about the effects of exercise on cognitive decline later in life,” said, Dr. C. Munro Cullum, co-leader of the study and a UTSW professor of psychiatry. “MCI and dementia are likely to be influenced by a complex interplay of many factors, and we think that, at least for some people, exercise is one of those factors.”