Walking Staves Off Dementia

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Instead of being hardwired and rigid, scientists have concluded that our brains are actually fluid — constantly changing based on our individual activities and experiences.  This concept of neuro-plasticity is profound. In addition to having the ability to change the expression of our genes by making lifestyle changes, we also get to determine the health and vitality of our brains. That’s big stuff.

Last week, while listening to Terry Gross interview Dr. David Linden on her NPR show, Fresh Air, I was particularly interested in the last question she asked him:

TG: …as a professor of neuroscience, do you do certain things to take care of your brain to either strengthen it or to protect it?

DL: What I do to strengthen and protect my brain is physical exercise. The single best thing you can do for your cognitive function, particularly when you’re in middle age like me, is to get out of your chair and move your body around. It is a much, much bigger effect than any of these brain-training games or puzzles or things that people want to sell you.

TG: Why is that true?

DL: Well, it turns out that these puzzles only produce a very small improvement and that the improvement does not generalize very much behind the task of the puzzle itself. It turns out that when you exercise, you are dilating the blood vessels in your brain, you are changing the metabolic capacity of your brain. You’re causing your brain to secrete chemicals called trophic factors that appear to keep neurons healthy and changeable. And we don’t entirely understand the molecular basis of the beneficial aspects of exercise, but the aspects are enormous. It reduces anxiety; it prevents depression; it improves cognitive function. If there is a single thing to do for your brain health, it is to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day.

Now, while I do like the memory games at Lumosity, I love aerobic exercise even more. And, as I’m not a runner, aerobic exercise — to me — always means walking.

The topic of brain health was featured yet again last week in the Wall Street Journal in an article that announced walking as the biggest game changer in the fight against dementia. Is it me, or are you sensing a welcome trend here as well?

So instead of wondering what things you should be doing to stave off cognitive decline, start putting one foot in front of the other. Now, you might also want to eat more greens, take that Bikini Boot Camp trip, or even start playing Sudoku. But, remember, you can think about all of these lifestyle tune-ups while … walking.

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