This is Your Brain on Walking

The general wellness perks of getting fresh air and exercise might be reason enough for you to tie up your shoes and get some steps. But here’s more good news about walking: a new study shows walking can benefit the brain. In research findings presented at Experimental Biology 2017, scientists found that the foot-to-ground impacts created during a walk may send pressure waves surging through your arteries, and ultimately increase the amount of blood sent to the brain.

Foot Impact Increases Blood Flow to the Brain

Previously, researchers weren’t really sure how much movement affected blood flow. Using ultrasound to measure internal carotid artery blood velocity waves, as well as arterial diameters to determine blood flow to both brain hemispheres, they were able to see what sorts of exercise mattered most. In 12 adult participants, they saw running increased blood flow to the brain more than walking, but walking was better than cycling, so foot impact made a difference.

Walking may be one of the simplest exercises around, but it can lead to significant health gains. According to Lynn Cialdella Kam, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine, a lot of the concerns affecting heart impact also affect brain health. “Brain health and blood flow can be altered by the inflammation associated with obesity, by hypertension, by glucose intolerance and more,” she explains.

Blood oxygenates vessels, which prevents cell death, improves cognitive functioning, and keeps conditions like dementia at bay. If the brain isn’t “breathing” well enough, you may see long-term problems. “Those health issues, that can affect the delivery of blood to the brain, may lead to more concerns like cognitive decline or stroke,” Kam says. Simply walking on a regular basis can help counter those problems.

Walking May Improve Cognitive Functioning

In addition, Kam says walking and exercise may increase levels of a critical protein in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNFs). “These BDNFs play a big role in the development of within-cell communications in the brain,” she explains. “If you can increase BDNFs, you can improve your cognitive functioning.”

Kam also thinks it’s impossible to dismiss the mental wellness effects of walking and regular exercise—even if you’re not training for a marathon, trying to make an Olympic team or in any way intense about it. “That change of pace, in taking a walk, can take you out of your regular environment and help you feel better,” she says. “You also get a rush of ‘feel good’ chemicals. People always talk about dopamine, but there’s also serotonin and norepinephrine.” That hormonal cocktail is like a calming, energizing pick-me-up shot that can power you through the remainder of your day.

Walk for 30 Minutes a Day, 5 Days a Week

So, walk. It’s easy, requires no equipment, and science is continuing to prove the endless ways stepping can benefit body and mind. “The standard recommendation is 30 minutes a day, five days a week, of moderate intensity exercise—of which walking would fit,” says Kam. “Just that, and you can feel like you’re doing something good for yourself, for your body, and making healthy choices. From a well-being perspective, feeling stronger and more capable can also lead to a higher quality of life.”

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