Research conducted by the University of Maryland School of Public Health suggests that walking can increase connections within and between three brain networks, including one that is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The study focused on older adults with normal brain function as well as those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which is a slight decline in mental abilities associated with memory, reasoning, and judgment and is considered a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
During the study, thirty-three participants between the ages of 71 and 85 engaged in supervised treadmill walking four days a week for 12 weeks. Before and after the exercise regimen, participants were asked to read a short story and then recall it with as many details as possible. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was also used to measure changes in communication within and between the three brain networks responsible for cognitive function.
J. Carson Smith, a kinesiology professor with the School of Public Health and principal investigator of the study said, “The brain networks we studied in this research show deterioration over time in people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. They become disconnected, and as a result, people lose their ability to think clearly and remember things. We’re demonstrating that exercise training strengthens these connections.”
The three brain networks investigated in the study included the default mode network, which activates when a person is not engaged in a specific task and is connected to the hippocampus—a region of the brain affected early in Alzheimer’s disease. The study found that after 12 weeks of exercise, participants showed significant improvements in their ability to recall the story.
Smith said, “The brain activity was stronger and more synchronized, demonstrating exercise actually can induce the brain’s ability to change and adapt. These results provide even more hope that exercise may be useful as a way to prevent or help stabilize people with mild cognitive impairment and maybe, over the long term, delay their conversion to Alzheimer’s dementia.”
These findings contribute to the growing body of evidence that supports the beneficial effects of exercise on brain health. Regular walking and physical activity have been associated with various cognitive benefits, including improvements in memory and overall brain function. By increasing connectivity within brain networks, walking may help support cognitive abilities and potentially reduce the risk or slow down the progression of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
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