How Walking Benefits Both Body and Brain

Walking, especially outside and particularly amongst nature, seldom feels like exercise. The restorative effects seem to more than negate the actual effort of moving forward.

That is in part because it’s such a natural movement for us as humans. There are several benefits to regular walking—at any age—beyond just going through the motions, though.

The activity burns calories, helping us to maintain a healthy weight, which is important to stave off obesity, heart disease, etc. Walking also lubricates our joints, which can ease pain, and aids in digestion (a short walk after a big meal can be a helpful habit).

One study found that those who walk five days a week required 43% fewer sick days from work than those walking just once per week, suggesting a boost in immune function. Among the walkers who did get sick, it was noted that their sickness period was shorter, and their symptoms milder. That’s basically a superpower.

Walking promotes blood flow, which helps the body recover from prior exertion—and may be key to maintaining stability and sharpness of mind, too. A more recent study highlights this extraordinary benefit we can obtain from the simple and easy act of regular walking.

As we age, cognitive decline becomes an increasing threat. Memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease are just some of the tragic ways our otherwise healthy lives could be trifled with. It’s not clear what causes mild cognitive impairment in all cases, but one leading factor could be blood flow to the brain.

The yearlong study, published this year in the National Library of Medicine, found that older people with early signs of memory loss were able to improve their cognitive scores by walking five days per week for at least 20 minutes. Increased blood flow to the brain was noted in patients with improved scores.

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The authors of the study even suggested that the improvements they observed from one year of regular exercise are apt to increase if maintained over an even longer duration. Indeed, it may take one year or more for some to begin realizing the effects at a notable level, according to them, so have patience and persist in your routine for as long as your body comfortably allows.

A different NLM study from 2013 found something similar: That physical active older men possess superior blood saturation compared with sedentary men of the same age. This proved true whether the men were active or at rest. And yet another study, comparing sedentary and endurance athletes, concluded that greater blood flow in the brain was associated with better scores on cognitive tests.

With virtually no downside associated with regular walking, it’s easy for us to recommend this activity to everyone. Anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour (or more!) of walking, performed at least three to four times per week, will provide benefits if maintained over the long term. The older we are, the more important this may be.

And yes, other exercises such as cycling, hiking, and swimming can absolutely work too, so feel free to include plenty of variety in your movement routine. Resistance training has its own range of benefits—including important bone density improvement—which we will discuss in detail in a future article.

Now get walking!