Gentle stroll not only improves fitness but boosts intelligence.
New research has shown that walking “at one’s own pace” for 40 minutes, three times a week can improve intelligence.
Scientists say moderate walking enhances connections between the brain’s circuits, combats a drop in brain function linked to aging and even improves performance in reasoning tasks.
Psychologists at Illinois University found brain function levels among nearly 100 self-confessed couch potatoes improved dramatically after a year in which they walked a few times a week.
All the volunteers, aged between 18 and 35 and 59 to 80, led a sedentary lifestyle before the study, with less than two bouts of physical activity of 30 minutes or more during the previous six months.
Professor Art Kramer, who led the study published in the science journal Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience, said:”Almost nothing in the brain gets done by one area – it’s more of a circuit.
“These networks can become more or less connected. As we get older, they become less connected, so we were interested in the effects of fitness on connectivity of brain networks that show the most dysfunction with age.”
The team found that older adults who are more fit tend to have better connectivity in specific regions of the brain than their sedentary peers. Those with more brain network connections also tend to be better at planning, prioritising, strategising and multitasking.
The new study used brain scans to determine whether aerobic activity increased connectivity in the brain’s networks. The researchers measured participants’ brain connectivity and performance on cognitive tasks at the beginning of the study, at six months and after a year of either walking or toning and stretching.
At the end of the year, brain network connectivity was significantly improved in the brains of the older walkers, but not among those who did only stretching and toning exercises.
The walkers also had increased connectivity in the part of the brain which helps in the performance of complex tasks and they did significantly better on cognitive tests than their toning and stretching peers.
Professor Kramer said previous studies have found that aerobic exercise can enhance the function of specific brain structures.
But this latest study shows that even moderate aerobic exercise also improves the co-ordination of important brain networks.
He said: “The higher the connectivity, the better the performance on some of these cognitive tasks, especially the ones we call executive control tasks – things like planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, working memory and multitasking.
“These are the very skills that tend to decline with aging”, he said.