Sound far fetched? A new study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience has shown that walking will in fact enhance connectivity within brain circuits. Additionally, the study found that walking also improves cognition and combats the decline in brain function normally associated with aging.Walking, in effect, keeps the brain younger and functioning at a higher level than those of sedentary individuals.
The study followed 65 previously sedentary adults aged 59 to 80 and joined a walking or stretching and toning group for a period of twelve months. The researchers also measured brain activity in 32 adults aged between 18-35 years of age.
The study focused on regions within the brain that function together as networks.
"Almost nothing in the brain gets done by one area it's more of a circuit," said University of Illinois psychology professor and Beckman Institute Director Art Kramer, lead researcher. Dr. Kramer has led previous studies which showed that walking can increase memory and cognitive abilities by as much as 15% in 6 months and increase the production of small blood vessels in the brain by 43% in the same duration. "These networks can become more or less connected. In general, 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, Dr. Kramer added."
Dr. Kramer and his staff were particularly interested in what is known as the Default Mode Network, a network of brain circuitry which dominates brain activity when an individual is detached from their surroundings either when passively observing an event or when daydreaming. A degradation in the DMN has been shown to be a common symptom of aging and a potential marker of disease such as Alzheimer's.
In a healthy brain, DMN activity diminishes rapidly when an individual focuses on a specific activity requiring focus and concentration. Older brains, Alzheimer's patients and schizophrenics are less able to detach from the DMN so that other brain networks may launch to handle specific tasks. Individuals with greater DMN connectivity have been shown superior in activities involving planning, strategizing or mutl-tasking.
The study used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) to investigate walkings effects on the DMN and other brain networks. Taking benchmark tests at 6 months and 12 months respectively they found DMN connectivity significantly enhanced among older walkers but not in the control group of toning and stretching peers. The walkers also exhibited increased connectivity in another area of brain circuitry known as the Fronto-Executive Network (FEN) which is known to aid in the ability to perform complex tasks. The older walkers also outperformed the stretching/toning control group in cognitive tests by a wide margin.
"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," summed up Dr. Kramer.