Off to my fitness class I go. I have all the necessary gear in a bag on the car seat beside me. When I arrive, I drive around looking for a parking spot closest to the door. Participants from an earlier class are just coming out so I’m lucky to nab a good spot.
Where is the logic in that? Aren’t I going to an exercise class? Why don’t I walk those few extra steps? Is it dark? No, it’s mid-morning. Is it cold or rainy? No, it’s a beautiful day.
Making simple things complicated is perhaps a unique human trait. Walking is simple. What’s more, walking is a powerful exercise for your brain. You may be aware of some of the benefits walking has on your body, but your brain also benefits from this simple and often overlooked brain-enhancing activity.
All physical activity, including resistance training, aerobic exercise, muscle toning, strengthening and balance exercises benefit your brain. But what makes walking special?
Here are some benefits of walking you might want to consider:
As you walk, your brain adjusts to the rhythm and pace of your gait. Walk quickly and your brain speeds into overdrive. Stroll and your brain shifts down a couple gears.
So, as you walk your mental state matches your walking rhythm. If you want to get your energy up, walk quickly. If you are looking to unwind, just saunter along.
Walking increases the size of your hippocampus. This little gem located in your brain is associated mainly with memory, in particular long-term memory. The hippocampus is part of the limbic system which is the area in the brain associated with memory, emotion, and motivation.
That means that walking promotes the forming and storing of memories as well as your feelings associated with those memories.
Stress is damaging to brain health and walking is a great stress reducer.
Following a heavy workout or a long run, athletes often experience a feeling of euphoria referred to as a “runner’s high.” Walking, to a lesser extent, causes a similar feeling.
You may have heard that endorphins released by your brain during exercise cause reactions much like those of pain-relieving morphine.
Now research points toward endocannabinoids. Endo-what?
Endocannabinoids are a cannabis-like substance that naturally occurs in your body after exercise. These endocannabinoids both motivate you to move more and reward you after movement.
This reward comes in the form of a set of reactions that reduce pain and anxiety and produce a floaty, free-form sense of well-being. This may sound like we are back in the 1960s as we think about the elation, endless peacefulness, and inner harmony that comes about from endocannabinoids.
When your brain turns down your stress meter you will find this calmer state allows you to think more clearly.
Walking also stimulates your brain to release the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that promotes the survival of brain cells by playing a role in their growth and maintenance.
With about 100 billion brain cells, you probably wouldn’t miss one or two. But heck, if a walk will safeguard their health, then what are you waiting for?
Healthier brain cells encourage better brain function.
As you walk, the force of your foot hitting the ground sends pressure waves up through your arteries. These pressure waves flowing up significantly increase the supply of blood to your brain.
Running has a more dramatic impact and cycling less. Swimming has none at all. Not to say these other activities are not beneficial to your brain health, just that they don’t generate the same retrograde pressure on your arteries.
Increased blood flow brings additional nutrients to the brain cells and takes away toxins.
Gosh, our bodies are endlessly amazing! More blood flow to your brain also means more oxygen being sent that way. Your brain is a real oxygen hog, using up to 20 percent of the body’s total supply. With more oxygen to your brain, clearer thinking results.
Walking requires very little conscious effort. That leaves your attention free to wander in its own direction. In a sense, your brain begins to float from sight to sound to thought to smell as your brain is free to take in what draws its attention.
This creates the perfect harmony when two completely unrelated concepts come together to create an innovative new idea. You may find you have many strokes of insight as you step along.
On top of all those direct benefits of walking there are indirect benefits as well. If you walk regularly you will find completing your walk each time a great morale booster. You may find you have improved sleep, feel more energized, and are more focused.
The advantage to walking is that there is no special equipment needed beyond a good pair of shoes, almost anyone can do it, it can be done just about anywhere, and it costs virtually nothing.
Your brain is very complicated. So complicated that researchers still have much to learn about how it works and how it sometimes fails us. However, keeping your brain fit can start with simple steps. Walking is one of those simple steps that can provide significant benefits to your brain fitness.
Take this 20 question self-assessment quiz to see if your lifestyle supports brain-healthy habits.
How often do you practice walking? Have you ever noticed your mood improve after a walk or that you can think more clearly? Have your creative juices ever helped you come up with a brilliant new idea during a walk? Please share your thoughts below!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor to get specific medical advice for your situation.
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