Resolutions aside, it may pay to start doing something quite simple to give your brain an edge in the New Year. It’s scientifically backed and doesn’t take more time than you’d typically spend watching an episode of a TV show. Plus, doing it gives you an excuse to get outside. Walking is the deceptively simple brain boost we need.
On top of a wealth of science already supporting walking as one of the best things you can do for your brain, a new study shows that walking around two miles each day can preserve cognitive functioning in aging brains.
Researchers recruited a group of participants, all 60 or older, and divided them into two walking activity groups. Those in the low physical activity group walked 4,000 or fewer steps each day. Those in the high activity group walked more than 4,000 steps per day. At an average pace, 4000 steps is roughly the equivalent of two miles (3.2 kilometers). Physical activity of both groups was tracked and verified using accelerometers for seven days.
Both groups were given MRI scans to assess the volume and thickness of their brains’ hippocampus, the seat of memory in the brain. Previous research has shown that greater hippocampul thickness correlates with more effective memory consolidation—the process by which we’re able to form and hold onto memories over time.
“Brain thickness, a more sensitive measure than volume, can track subtle changes in the brain earlier than volume and can independently predict cognition,” said lead researcher Prabha Siddarth from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The participants were also given neuropsychological tests to assess memory and other cognitive abilities like mental acuity, information processing speed and concentration.
The results showed that participants who walked more than 4,000 steps a day had thicker hippocampal volume than those who walked less. Other brain areas associated with the hippocampus, which play a contributing role in memory consolidation, were also found to be thicker in the brains of those who walked more.
The group that walked more also had better test scores with respect to attention and cognitive processing speed. The research team didn’t find a significant difference between the groups on tests of memory recall.
While the results aren’t 100% conclusive, there’s a lot there worth our attention, particularly when seen in light of past research pointing to walking as a no-brainer for a better brain.