A recent study, published in the journal of Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, shows walking can actually boost the connectivity within brain circuits which tend to diminish as we age.
According to the lead researcher of the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana study, walking limbers the aging body and also keeps the mind supple. "Patterns of connectivity decrease as we get older," said Dr. Arthur F. Kramer, who led the study team. "Networks aren't as well connected to support the things we do, such as driving," he said. "But we found as a function of aerobic fitness, the networks became more coherent."
Kramer, who also works with the military and people with disabilities, continues to work on mediating the negative effects of aging with lifestyle choices. "We're interested in understanding brain plasticity but we're also interested in doing something about it," he said. "We can wait for that wonder drug or we can do something today."
Over the course of a year, the walking study tracked 70 adults from 60 to 80 years old. A toning, stretching, strengthening group served as a control against which to evaluate the previously sedentary walkers.
"We also measured brain function," said Kramer. The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain networks. (A group of 20-to-30-year olds were tested for comparison.) "Individuals in the walking group, the aerobics training group, got by far the largest benefits and not just physically,” he said.
"The aerobic group also improved in memory, attention and a variety of other cognitive processes," Kramer said. "As the older people in the walking group became more fit, the coherence among different regions in the networks increased and became similar to those of the 20-yr olds," Kramer explained.
But the results did not happen overnight. Effects in the walking group were observed only after they trained for 12 months. Six-month tests yielded no significant trends.
Dr. Lynn Millar, an expert with the American College of Sports Medicine, was not surprised by the findings.