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Good news for people who hate crossword puzzles and Sudoku: Brain games aren’t the only way to keep your mind sharp. A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience shows walking three times a week can help enhance brain function. And, according to their research, you don’t even have to break a sweat. Couch potatoes who walked at their own pace for 40 minutes three times a week boosted brain activity and improved their performance on cognitive tests.
Of course, sweating doesn’t hurt. The team’s previous research found that fit people have better connectivity than sedentary people in key areas of the brain that help with planning, prioritizing, strategizing and multitasking. Brain cells, or neurons, communicate with one another via intricate connections or pathways. The more connected these cells are to one another, the better our brains will function.
For their most recent study, the University of Illinois researchers wanted to determine if aerobic activity would increase this kind of connectivity in the areas of the brain associated with memory, planning, scheduling and multitasking. To find out, the team recruited 65 adults between the ages of 59 and 80. All of the participants had been sedentary before the study, reporting less than two bouts of exercise in the previous six months. Half of the volunteers were assigned to a 40-minute walking program three times a week, while the rest were assigned to a stretching and toning regimen. The researchers measured brain connectivity and performance on cognitive tasks at the beginning of the study, at six months, and after one year of either walking or stretching. After one year, the walkers had significantly higher brain connectivity and scored much better on cognitive tasks than when they started the program. The stretching and toning group, on the other hand, showed no improvement.
"The higher the connectivity, the better the performance on some of these cognitive tasks, especially the ones we call executive control tasks -- things like planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, working memory and multitasking," said lead researcher and University of Illinois psychology professor Art Kramer in a statement. “These are the very skills that tend to decline with aging.”
When it comes to keeping your mind sharp the old adage “use it or lose it” definitely holds true. Even if you don’t care about rippling muscles or a svelte figure, research shows that exercise can help the body and the brain stay young and agile. What’s great about this study is that it gives hope to people who haven’t worked out in years, and to those who might only be able to hobble along with a cane. If arthritis or some other condition prevents you from getting a heart-pumping cardiovascular workout, you can still get plenty of benefits from walking at a moderate pace. Just another reminder that doing something is always better than doing nothing.
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