We often hear how beneficial walking is for your body. It boosts the health of your heart and lungs, increases leg strength, and decreases blood pressure to name a few. But, although certainly less frequently discussed, walking is also great for your brain. In fact, a recent study that looked at walking to improve brain health found that subjects who walked more than 4,000 steps per day had healthier brain tissue in the areas of the brain responsible for memory, as well as better cognitive function, than those who walked fewer than 4,000 steps per day.
In other words, walking may be your ticket to protecting your brain from age-related cognitive decline.
To learn more about the brain benefits of walking, we spoke with Dave Rabin, MD, PhD, a neuroscientist and board-certified psychiatrist at Apollo Neuroscience. It’s pretty mind blowing how much good simply putting one foot in front of the other can do for you from head to toes.
The cognitive benefits of walking
Walking may seem like too simple of an exercise to be particularly beneficial for your health, but the truth is that while there certainly are benefits of more intense types of exercise like HIIT workouts and Pilates, there are still many benefits to be gleaned from walking regularly.
“Walking may seem pretty simple for those of us who are able, but it’s a complex process that involves the interaction of neuromuscular, sensory, and cognitive functions,” says Dr. Rabin. “Many studies have even shown that participation in walking exercises may help to prevent cognitive decline and lower the risk of dementia.” In part, this is because walking increases blood flow to the brain, which also releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that boost our mental health and our mood, according to Dr. Rabin.
At this point, a rather rich body of scientific evidence demonstrates that walking changes our brains and bodies in positive ways. “There’s the more obvious aspect—that we become more aerobically fit when we introduce more exercise into our day-to-day—but the brain improvements from walking are fascinating,” shares Dr. Rabin. “A recent study completed by NeuroImage in June 2021 shows that exercise can renovate the white matter in our brains, improving our ability to think and remember as we age. We can look at walking as more of an investment into our future health.”
And, the brain benefits of walking aren’t reserved for older adults. Studies show that young adults are also able to reap significant brain-boosting benefits from low-intensity exercise like walking.
How walking improves brain health
So, we know walking is good for the brain, but how exactly does walking improve brain health? Dr. Rabin says it mostly comes down to the fact that walking increases cerebral blood flow, which in and of itself is beneficial to the brain. Furthermore, increased blood flow to the brain stimulates the release of endorphins, which boosts our mood and feelings of well-being.
“Studies show that after only six months of regular walking, participants have better cardiovascular fitness, and improvements in memory,” says Dr. Rabin. “I really like James Clear’s idea in Atomic Habits about ‘walking slowly, but not backwards.’ Just get out a little bit each day, show up for yourself, and the benefits will follow.”
How walking can boost memory and concentration
Dr. Rabin says there are quite a few ways that exercise, such as waking, boosts our memory and concentration. For starters: “It stimulates physiological changes, like reductions in insulin resistance and inflammation, while bringing about production of chemicals that affect the growth of new blood vessels in the brain,” he explains. “This encourages abundance, survival, and the overall health of our brain cells.”
How much you need to walk to benefit your brain
While recent research hit on the number of 4,000 daily steps as the magic number when it comes to walking to improve brain health. Dr. Rapin suggests that walking for time is sometimes a better way to go to ensure you’re moving enough every day.
“It’s advised to try to walk at least 30 minutes a day, but remember that 10 minutes is better than nothing,” he says. “The more you walk, the more likely you are to feel and see improvements, and it’ll start to feel easier.” Building a habit around walking will help make it part of your daily routine, he says.
“Practice makes mastery, and the more we do anything, the better we get at it according to Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel. Whether you live in a more urban or rural environment, there are plenty of ways to walk more,” Dr. Rabin notes. “You can walk to the same telephone pole every day and make a ritual out of it, listen to podcasts for some recharge time while you walk, walk with a baby carriage, or use walking as a time to call and check in on someone you love.” One Well+Good editor turned her daily coffee run into morning walks and said it helped her feel more clear-headed about her work. Whatever gets you motivated and moving.
Post walk, show your body some TLC with this cool-down stretches that only take five minutes: