The Best Underrated Exercise for Keeping Your Brain Sharp Well Into Your 80s

Photo: Getty Images/ ljubaphoto
Pop quiz: When it comes to workouts that are scientifically-linked to keeping your brain healthy well into old age, the best one is:

a.) shuffleboard, hence why it's such a hit in retirement communities

b.) running, because it really gets the heart pumping

c.) walking

Did you answer c.? Ding! Ding! Ding! It turns out that you don't have to go hard to do the most good for your body. In a recent seminar hosted by the Global Wellness Summit, Blue Zones expert Dan Buettner explained why walking—not running—is linked to brain health in some of the healthiest parts of the world.

Never heard of Blue Zones? The term describes specific regions in the world where people regularly live into the triple digits in good health. Specifically, the regions are Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, CA; and Icaria, Greece. Buettner has researched extensively about the diet and lifestyle habits in each region that are linked to its inhabitants long and healthy lives.

Experts In This Article

"When it comes to cognitive sharpness, the number one best activity you can do is walk," Buettner says. Here's a breakdown of the many reasons why walking is one of the best exercises for brain health.

Why walking is so good for your brain

1. It fires up neurons in the brain

"We think of walking as so easy, but there are actually over 200 muscles engaged every time you take a step," Buettner says. "Even though your brain isn't [consciously] thinking of those 200 muscles, your brain is still making all those muscles work." That may have big impacts on brain health, specifically your cognition: One study found that daily walking was correlated with preserving the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain where memory is stored. "Physical activity, one of the most promising behavioral interventions to prevent or delay cognitive decline, has been shown to be associated with hippocampal volume; specifically increased aerobic activity and fitness may have a positive effect on the size of the hippocampus," the study reads.

In the Blue Zones regions, walking is part of daily life. Not only is it often the preferred mode of transportation (unlike in the U.S., where driving is typically the go-to, even for short distances), but many of the inhabitants have spent their lives during work that's more physical in labor—and continue to do so even well into old age. Plus, instead of getting up early to "squeeze a workout in before work," walking is built into their normal day. And that idea is changing the way more people think about physical activity here in the States.

You can modify this runner's workout for walking and get even more bang for your buck: 

2. It's often a time to connect with others

While here in the States, many people choose to hit the gym alone and workout solo, walking is often done with someone else in Blue Zones communities. Not only is being connected to loved ones linked to longevity, it's also good for the brain. "If you're holding a conversation at the same time [as walking], that's more complex than we believe," Buettner explains. It's something else we often do without thinking about it, but walking and talking at the same time actually requires effort from various parts of the brain. Think of that mental effort as a workout for your brain.

3. Walking is linked to better mental health

You know what isn't good for the brain? Stress. Chronic stress can lead to atrophy of the brain mass and decrease its weight. In other words, chronic stress can literally shrink the brain in size. Here's the good news: Just 10 minutes of walking a day has been linked to effectively reducing stress. Given the link between chronic stress and Alzheimer's disease, those 10 short minutes a day truly are valuable.

Keeping stress in check was a valuable insight the creators of a nine-part documentary series The Human Longevity Project also found, showing another link between regions in the world where people live the longest and the importance of managing stress.

4. It may make your brain bigger

Even if you can't always squeeze in the full amount of recommended exercise (150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity per week), just a little bit of walking daily can help your brain. A 2019 study found that even among sedentary adults, every hour of light-intensity physical activity plus getting in 7,500 steps or more per day is associated with higher brain volume. This is equivalent, the study authors argued, "to approximately 1.4 to 2.2 years less brain aging." Not too shabby, eh?

5. It may improve your memory

You might associate the brain with the term "grey matter" (tissues made of nerve cells) but your all-important brain is also comprised of "white matter," which connects grey matter together with nerve fibers. Only recently have scientists started to understand just how important white matter function is to things like personality development and cognitive function. And research shows that a regular walking routine (three times a week for 40 minutes per session) can improve memory and white matter health even more than other kinds of exercise like dancing. Time to lace up your shoes and talk a walk!

Here in the States, where productivity is given such a high value, it's normal to think that doing the absolutely maximum is best: Running instead of walking. A hard workout versus an easy one. A sweat-soaked shirt versus one you can wear to dinner later. What Blue Zones are showing us is that simply isn't true. Intense workouts absolutely have benefits, but walking does, too. After all, the tortoise did beat the hare in the end.

Loading More Posts...