Want to improve and maintain your brain? Walk often — in nature

While popular brain training gadgets and apps have their place, don’t overlook an age-old strategy to optimize brain health: Walking.  

Humans are unique from the rest of the animal kingdom because of our ability to walk upright on two legs, a development that profoundly evolved our brains compared to our finned and four-legged friends.

Learning to walk freed our hands to do all manner of things and allowed us to conserve energy while moving over long distances, giving us more endurance than any other animal on the planet. The ability to walk also stimulated the development of the human brain into the most evolved in the animal kingdom.

Because walking played such an important role in the development of the human brain, it improves brain health in ways other physical activities don’t. Research shows that walking grows an area of the brain called the hippocampus, the seat of learning and memory. This makes it an excellent way to lower the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Also, the impact of the feet on the ground while walking has been shown to send more blood to the brain, improving oxygenation of the brain.

Maybe this helps explain why so many great thinkers and authors over the centuries were fans of long walks.

The many ways walking benefits the brain

Although walking confers myriad benefits, if you really want to super charge your brain, walk in nature.

A recent study found that walks in nature significantly decrease the obsessive, negative thoughts associated with depression and anxiety.

Researchers found that study subjects who walked through nature for an hour and a half showed less rumination and reduced activity in the subgenual prefontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with depression and mood and mental disorders.

The study subjects who took their walks in urban environments did not show the same results.

Another study showed getting kids with ADHD into a natural green environment significantly reduced symptoms.

If you’re stumped for a creative solution to a problem, walking has been shown to increase your creativity by 60 percent compared to sitting. Many people report arriving at their “aha” moment while walking it out.

Walking better connects the various regions of the brain and improves memory and learning abilities.

In fact, one of the more interesting reasons walking is so good for creative problem solving is that its steady rhythmic pace facilitates and enhances our thinking abilities.

If you’re ever had a functional neurology exam, then you know we ask you to walk as part of the exam. Sometimes we also ask you to walk while reciting every other letter of the alphabet or counting backwards by 7s.

This is because looking at how you walk, especially if you are multitasking, gives us insight into how different parts of your brain are working (or aren’t). Your walking gait, your arm swing, your leg stance, and your posture all give valuable information about what’s going on in your brain.

Any exercise is good, and certainly better than no exercise; but even if you work out regularly, don’t miss out on the brain benefits of walking. And if you don’t exercise, walking is perhaps the most inviting way to significantly improve your brain health.

Ask my office how functional neurology can help your brain better function.

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