Walking is an optimal exercise if you want to improve your overall health. Among many others, going for a stroll at least 5 days a week can help you manage and prevent chronic disease, lose weight or strengthen your bones. But walking isn’t beneficial only to the body. It can also boost your mental wellbeing. This activity can help you reduce anxiety and stress and ease depression. Moreover, scientists have discovered that walking is one of the efficient ways to improve brain health.
How Does Walking Affect the Brain
You may wonder, how exactly does such a seemingly basic activity aid the brain?
Well, walking, particularly at a brisk pace, can lead to an improvement in the blood flow to the brain. This is truly important, because having an optimal level of blood flow to the brain can prevent disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. At the same time, during our walks we release an important number of endorphins, the so-called “feel-good” chemicals. Endorphins are hormones produced by our nervous system that help us relieve pain and stress and improve our overall wellbeing.
Walking Boosts White Matter and Memory
A recent study, published in the NeuroImage journal, examined the effects of aerobic exercise on white matter, the other type of brain tissue besides gray matter. According to WebMD, white matter comprises a large number of nerve fibers which connect certain parts of the brain and the spinal cord. Basically, this is the brain tissue responsible for helping us quickly process information and walk straight without falling.
The study included 247 sedentary, but healthy participants, with an average age of 65 years. The participants were divided into three groups and took part in three 1-hour exercise sessions per week for 24 weeks. One group engaged in walking sessions, one in dancing and one in flexibility, stretching and balance training. At the end of the 6-month trial, both the walkers and dancers manifested improvements in the white matter, but the improvements were more widespread among the walking group. Also the participants in the walking group were the only ones who showed better memory performance.
Another study, conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, confirms the brain benefits of walking. According to German researchers, going for a walk on a regular basis can actually change the brain structure for the better. More precisely, scientists discovered positive changes in gray matter in the cerebral cortex in participants who spent more time outdoors. The results showed that walking can have a positive influence on concentration and working memory and also boost the overall mood.
How Many Steps Should You Take a Day?
So, we’ve seen so far that regular walks can be truly beneficial to our mental health. But how much should we actually walk each day to reap those benefits? Should we aim for a certain number of steps? Well, according to research, there is a key number we should take into account if we want to enjoy a better brain health.
Over a 2-year period, scientists from the University of California tracked the physical activity of 29 individuals, aged 60 years and over and with memory issues. Researchers determined the average number of steps per day and distributed the participants in two groups: one that walked 4.000 steps or less and another one that walked more than 4.000 steps a day. The results showed that subjects who walked more had better working memory, as well as better cognitive function. They displayed superior concentration and attention skills and a higher information-processing speed.
How to Track Your Walks
As we’ve seen, it’s quite important to be able to keep track of our walks. This can help us from different angles. First of all, so we can see if we’re meeting the recommended guidelines for daily physical activity. At the same time, tracking can help us find the motivation to remain active and also gain a sense of accomplishment once we’ve reached our goals.
In order to keep track of your steps you don’t really need anything else except your mobile phone. All you have to do is a download a free pedometer app like our own ActivityTracker and you’re all set. Such an app will automatically monitor your movement and will allow you to set an individual step goal and adjust it along the way. In addition to the number of steps you’ll be able to see other useful fitness stats, such as the distance walked, the calories burned or active time, and track your progress on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.
The mental benefits of walking are real and have been scientifically proven by various studies. This simple form of exercise can aid you prevent brain disorders, keep your memory and focus sharp and lift your mood. So, if you want to maintain your cognitive abilities as you age, it’s time to incorporate walking into your daily routine. After all, it’s an activity that’s easy to do and truly rewarding when it comes to your mental health.