Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Walking and Cognitive Health

Journal Entry: Weight = 170.8 lbs.; Coinage = $2.91, 96 pennies, 8 nickels, 8 dimes, 3 quarters; Glass bottles retrieved emptied and placed in a container = 5; Ground Scores = 3; Best coinage find = a curb quarter walking back from a St. Patrick Day Parade (New Orleans has a parade for everything.)

Feature Entry: Walking and Cognitive Health

It has been long known that a systematic regular walking program is good for the health and proper physical functioning of the bodily processes. But can walking actually help the brain perform better for cognitive functions? Apparently so according to C.H. Hillman et al in the 2009 March 31 edition of Neuroscience (Vol 159 (3), pp 1044-54). Using ten year old students walking on a treadmill for 20 minutes at 60% of their maximum work capacity, subjects experienced an “exercise induced” change in performance on an “attention demanding” reading task. Loftin and Eason (1988) found similar results with college adults on a math task; and, Diamond (2009) with various cognitive tasks with older adults.

With the children, the authors concluded that a moderate acute exercise walking program is a contributing factor for increasing attention for cognitive functions by affecting specific underlying brain processes. In this sense, acute means that the brain works better just after exercise because no one knows how long the effect lasts. They define the stimulation provided by walking as being a major contributor to what they call positive “cognitive health.”

Cognitive health is a hot issue in the neuroscience journals and in the popular media. People are living much longer and a healthy brain is imperative for quality of life. Ann McIlroy, writing for the Toronto Globe and Mail quotes scientists that define in lay terms how acute exercise assists the brain processors to work more efficiently. One, exercise induces activation helps the brain to pay attention to what we are doing and to get the job done. Second, after exercise, the brain has greater ability to help us focus and avoid distractions. Third, being in the acute exercise state helps the brain helps us to subdue inappropriate impulses. And fourth, the exercise helps the brain to mentally manipulate information needed to solve a problem or complete a task.

One explanation is that walking helps to warm up the brains circuits, especially in the prefrontal cortex, the region that some call the CEO of the brain. Given that the prefrontal cortex is heavily innervated with both motor and cognitive neurons, by stimulating the motor neurons through cardiovascular exercise, we are priming the cortex so that cerebral systems are more completely engaged.

Move over Sudoku, serious literature, computer mind games, crossword puzzles, and blogging; make room for the daily walk as a major preventive of senility and a complete ally for cognitive health both now and throughout the lifespan.


Note: special thanks to Bill Yates, a Tulsa, Oklahoma physician for his excellent blog that frequently features articles about neuroscience.


  1. I finished reading The Warden and am ready for another book. Suggestions? It took a while to get used to the different style of writing but I did enjoy it. Thanks!

  2. Nice going, now give Barchester Towers a read. It is a very nice continuation of The Warden. Trollope was a big walker and he often has characters taking walks for utility and other important reasons such as personal reflection, courting, and fitness.