It has always been known about the physical health benefits of exercise and walking. The use of cardiovascular exercise to help control body weight and reduce blood pressure. What has not been so widely known about is the benefits to the Brain as well. By this I do not just mean the benefits to mental health but to the actual physiology of the Brain itself.
The benefits can range from the molecular to behavioural level. During a study carried out in 2003 by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, it was found that exercising for just 20 minutes improves information processing and memory functions.
Walking helps the brain to grow!
The mature brain can grow, this was confirmed during a study on London cab drivers. To become a ‘cabbie’ they must learn to navigate through the whole of London without the use of maps or GPS. They are tested on ‘The Knowledge’. Learning the Knowledge produced an enlargement in an area of the hippocampus associated with spatial memory (1). The longer they drove a cab for, the greater the effect,
Neuroscientists in Canada have produced evidence that exercise stimulates cell growth (2). They found that voluntary exercise greatly increases the growth of stem cells, so a keen hiker benefits from having more cells.
Exercise helps the body release numerous hormones, which are essential for the growth of brain cells. A study carried out in Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus.
Aging and Walking
There has always been the belief, that the brain deteriorated with time, along with the muscular structure of the body. Well it appears that this may not be the case. We often forget that muscles are as much a part of brain function as sensory systems are.
A study published in the USA seems to show that educated people live longer than those having less schooling. One interpretation is that a well-exercised brain resists senile deterioration, possibly by having a more robust circulatory system due to increased cognitive demands placed on it (3).
There is evidence that shows that physical activity does the same for the muscular system. Indeed, walkers who remained active into middle and old age (55-79 years) had no evidence of aging in their muscular system compared to healthy young adults (aged 20-36 years). Specifically, there was no loss of either muscle mass or strength, changes that used to be considered inevitable consequences of aging.
It had always been assumed that the brain degenerated with age. However, it has been proven that the ability to read another person’s emotion peaks around the 40s and 50s, and our vocabulary peaks in the late 60s or early 70s
Ironically, Hippocrates claimed, some 2400 years ago, that exercise is a human’s best medicine.
Health Benefits of Brain Stimulation through Walking
The fact that exercise boosts stem cell production in the hippocampus means it might contribute to improved neural and cognitive function in the elderly. It has been found that older people exercising regularly affects the production of immune cells known as T cells. Produced in the thymus that normally shrinks from the age of 20 years so that fewer T cells are produced. However, the thymus continued to produce as many T cells as that of young people.
We do not necessarily get frailer and sicker with old age. On the contrary, active walkers are in a much better position to experience healthy old age than their less-active counterparts.
A healthy mind and a healthy body are one and the same. Indeed, exercise tunes the brain in ways that promote creativity and complex problem solving.
1 Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good. C. D., Ashburner, J. Frackowiac, R. S., and Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97(8), 4398-4403. doi :10:1073/pnas.070039597.
2 Olson, A. K., Eadie, B. D., Ernst, C. and Christie, B. R. (2006), Environmental enrichment and voluntary exercise massively increase neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus via dissociable pathways. Hippocampus, 16: 250–260. doi:10.1002/hipo.20157
3 Molla, M. T., Madans, J. H., and Wagener, D. K. ( 2004). Differentials in adult mortality and activity limitation by years of education in the united states at the end of the 1990s. Population and Development Review. 30, 625-646.