At Medicine In Motion, we believe that exercise is medicine. If you can’t move with pain-free exuberance, any other intervention will have reduced efficacy. To that end, walking is the most basic form of human movement, to which a lot of other athletic endeavors not would be possible. It also seems to be something taken for granted: picture the number of cars lapping the parking lot at the grocery store to get a close parking spot so as to walk as little as possible. Walking shouldn’t be hard; in fact research is now showing just how much walking as a form of “medicine in motion” can impact our health across our lifespan.
NPR recently featured a story about how new research indicates that walking increases the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus, while being a very small part of our brain, is responsible for the daunting task of encoding information we take in so that we can recall it later. The normal course of aging is for the hippocampus to shrink, foreshadowing memory loss and dementia. These individuals took to the walking program 3 times per week for 40 minutes at a time. The distance over time increased as the exercisers speed increased. At the end of a year, the exercisers hippocampus increased in size by 2%, as measured by before and after MRI. In the control group the hippocampus shrunk by 1.5%.
More On Walking And Health
A similar study covering a larger period of time found a similar result. This time, researchers focused on gray matter volume, also found to reduce as we age. Following 299 cognitively normal Pittsburgh area adults (average age 78), those who walked 72 blocks weekly, which amounts to about 6 miles or less than 1 mile per day, had significantly higher amounts of gray matter 9 years later. The final follow up after year 13 found that 183 of the subjects had normal cognitive functioning, with a final indication that this amount of physical activity decreased the risk for cognitive impairment two-fold.
Evidence From The Longest Lived Cultures
Not a study in the strictest sense, similar conclusions were found and published a book called “Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.” What Dan Buettner, the author, and his team of researches found were 4 (later upgraded to 5) longevity hot spots around the globe: Sardinia, the Greek island of Ikaria, Okinawa, the Costa Rican peninsula of Nicoya, and the California city of Loma Linda. Buettner and his researchers tease out what he calls a “de facto longevity formula” by finding out what these people are all doing similarly in spite of their incredibly varied cultures and locations. While he does narrow it down to 9 traits, the one that is perhaps not surprising (in the context of this blog) is the fact that everyone included lots of low intensity activity, namely walking, in their daily lives. This also sometimes included some manual weed-whacking as evidenced below:
A Final Thought
The take home point from all of this is that it’s not a magic bullet: walking keeps the brain healthy only if it’s part of your daily life. The suggestion here is that you avoid being an efficiency expert and try to find ways to walk more. To follow the car example above, park at the back of the lot and walk up. Chances are you’ll get into the store before those circling the lot and be healthier for it!