In early 2020, COVID-19 brought an end to my workouts at the gym. I was self-employed and recently widowed, and my new normal felt like solitary confinement. Then, one morning, I made a break for it and went for a walk. I did it again the next day, then the next. Soon my new daily habit began to make me feel happier and my mind sharper, both of which I could only credit to my daily treks.
Curious about what was occurring, I did some research. It turns out there’s a mountain of scientific evidence that indicates walking — especially walking outdoors — is powerful medicine for your brain. Here’s what the data shows.
Moderately paced walks stimulate the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, that is key to the survival of existing brain neurons and the generation of new ones. “Perhaps the most exciting finding is that aerobic forms of exercise [including walking] likely help facilitate the growth of new neurons,” says Patrick Smith, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Walking increases the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, which can open the gates to enhanced creativity. The brain uses “about three times as much oxygen for healthy neuron function as muscles do” and is extremely sensitive to decreases in oxygen levels, according to Advanced Neurotherapy, a neurofeedback wellness clinic in Needham, Massachusetts. Creativity is a cognitive skill that is part of problem-solving. Studies show that the simple act of getting up from your desk and taking a short walk can help trigger ideas. A Stanford University study found “creative output increased 60 percent when participants were walking,” even on a treadmill facing a blank wall.
When you walk, increased blood flow to the brain initiates a “cascade of changes,” says Marie Pasinski, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. “A cocktail of feel-good neurotransmitters — serotonin, dopamine, endorphins — is released.” Forty-two percent of American adults suffer a vitamin D deficiency. Our bodies manufacture vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, furthering the production of serotonin, a hormone benefiting memory and mood. Even on a cloudy day, “exposure to light elevates the mood,” says John Ratey, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Participants who walked more than 4,000 steps per day had healthier brain tissue in the area responsible for memory, learning and cognitive function than those who did not, one study found. That brain region, called the hippocampus, typically begins to shrink in late adulthood, leading not only to impaired memory but also an increased risk of dementia. The research revealed that aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus.
This article originally appeared on AARP.org in September 2023
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