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Why Walking is Valuable for Mental and Brain Health

Hiking and walking as treatment options for mental wellness and health regulation of the nervous system are currently being heavily studied in the neuroscience community. This post will discuss this form of exercise as a possible preventative measure against Alzheimer’s, the effect of exercise on depression, and simple ways to integrate body movement into your daily life to regulate stress and improve your mood.

Can Walking Prevent Alzheimer’s?

Studies like Liang et al.’s show that biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease (proteins and other measurable physical changes indicating the development of Alzheimer’s) are lower in people who exercise more versus those who are more sedentary. This information is well known. However, the National Institute on Aging points out that it is unclear whether this is because walking prevents Alzheimer’s, or because walking reduces the risk of Alzheimer's due to other factors (ie healthier eating by those who also happen to exercise more, or unseen genetic contributors). Nonetheless, exercise has a number of substantial benefits like mood improvement, stress reduction, and illness prevention. I always encourage my patients to integrate 30 minutes or more of simple movement into their daily lives.

Walking as an Intervention for Brain Health

Walking and hiking as an intervention for Alzheimer’s Disease is promising. A one-year trial of an exercise program in nursing homes indicated that exercise slowed the diminishment in patients ability to perform daily tasks and physical activities (such as walking) in comparison to standard treatment. Although the measures for mood regulation did not change between normal treatment and exercise in this particular study, the researchers found a stark decrease in depression scales when exercise occurred more than twice a week.

Walking as Stress Regulation and the Power of Our Eye Movements

Additionally, walking and hiking are glorious tactics to use as daily stress relievers, or methods to regulate your mood. Walking allows your eye movements and breathing patterns to bring the brain’s stress response to a place of homeostasis.

A study conducted by Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, examines the psychological impact of our lateral eye movements on stress levels. Huberman cites that stress regulation is not only related to observing external stimuli, but also the physical, lateral movements of our eyes.

Lateral eye movements are what we do reflexively when engaging in a self-generated forward motion like walking, running, or hiking. In 2018, Huberman’s team reported the discovery of specific brain pathways that are connected with fear and respond to visual engagement.

Our natural lateral eye movements are mother nature’s way of regulating our physical body as we engage in exercise or any kind of forward motion. This back-and-forth movement of our eyes sends signals to our amygdala to remain calm. The amygdala is one of the brain’s many centers involved in threat detection.

Walking as Stress Regulation and the Impact of Regulating Our Breathing

Breath-work and breath regulation are additional ways that the body sends signals to the brain to engage in a sense of calm. In a study conducted in 2017, Mark Krasnow of Stanford, Jack Feldman of the University of California, Los Angeles, and their additional colleagues identified a link between the neurons responsible for breath regulation and the region of the brain responsible for panic, fear, and arousal.

The way we breathe sends direct signals to our brain’s fear center. When we inhale, our diaphragm moves downward, and the heart has more space. Then, blood begins to flow a little more slowly through the heart. Due to this, the heart signals the brain to begin speeding up. In this way, we can use our breath-work to control the speed of our heart rate and regulate our stress levels. As a general rule of thumb, inhale more than you exhale to increase your heart rate. If you want to slow down your heart rate and bring a sense of calm, focus on the exhale.

An additional study is currently being conducted by Andrew Huberman and David Spiegel (an associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford), to identify the type of breathing patterns that reduce stress most rapidly. The study consists of 125 participants wearing wrist monitors that measure breathing, sleep duration, heart rate variability, and heart rate. The participants are divided into four groups of different breathing modalities in order to analyze which types of breathing impact stress. The modalities are meditation, equal durations of inhaling and exhaling, and hyperventilation. This data is in the process of being evaluated.

Overall, these studies show us that vision and breathing are some of the fastest physical tactics for reigning in automatic arousal, or stress. A simple daily walk can help us to regulate our breathing and allow our eyes to engage in lateral movements, both of which aid in stress and mood management.

Can Walking Increase Growth Factors in the Brain?

Growth factors are substances in the body that regulate cell division and survival. Essentially, they maintain the health and connections of our cells, including those in the brain. BDNF is a growth factor involved in learning, memory, and possibly mood that decreases in people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. Increasing BDNF levels in these patients is especially important to help maintain a healthy brain.

Exercise has been shown to increase BDNF levels in the hippocampus (an especially important brain structure for learning and memory) and the cerebellum, cortex, and spinal cord in rats. This data has been replicated in humans, demonstrating that exercise has a strong effect in populations suffering from mental decline through aging or disease. Researchers have also found that longer, more intense exercise has the best outcomes.

Other Exercise Types That Benefit Brain and Mental Health

Aerobic exercise (aka “cardio” such as swimming, biking, or running) has been demonstrated to be effective in people without dementia. However, a combination of strength training (focusing on the lower limbs) and aerobic exercise has been demonstrated to be most effective for patients with dementia, compared to aerobic exercise alone.

Exercises That Benefit the Mind:

  • Yoga

  • Meditation

  • Pilates

  • Distance running

  • Swimming

  • Cycling

  • Boxing

  • Martial arts

  • Weight training

Ways you can Start Getting Active in Daily Life

If you want to exercise more, please remember to be safe by going at your own pace and asking others to participate alongside you. Social exercise is considered especially helpful for depression, so joining or forming a walking group with friends or family would be very beneficial. I personally love running and walking with my closest friends!

Boulder County has various programs, such as a Walk with Ease and a Healthy Moves class, for adults and seniors to safely exercise with the community. The NIH also publishes tips specifically for those exercising with Alzheimer’s. Again, make sure you talk to your doctor before making any changes, and get your friends and family involved so you can improve your health together.

Contributions by Emma Easterly

Works Cited

“Depression and Alzheimer’s | Caregiver Center.” Alzheimer’s Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

“BDNF Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor [Homo Sapiens (human)] – Gene – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 20 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

“BDNF Gene – Genetics Home Reference.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health, 21 Feb. 2017. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Bossers, Willem J.R., Lucas H.V. Van Der Woude, Froekje Boersma, Tibor Hortobágyi, Erik J.A. Scherder, and Marieke J.G. Van Heuvelen. “A 9-Week Aerobic and Strength Training Program Improves Cognitive and Motor Function in Patients with Dementia: A Randomized, Controlled Trial.” The American Journal of Geriatric Psychology 23.11 (2015): 1106-116. ScienceDirect.

Elsevier Science Ltd., 3 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Cotman, Carl W., and Nicole C. Berchtold. “Exercise: A Behavioral Intervention to Enhance Brain Health and Plasticity.” Trends in Neuroscience 25.6 (2002): 295-301. ScienceDirect. \

Elsevier Science Ltd., 19 June 2002. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Cotman, Carl W., Nicole C. Berchtold, and Lori-Ann Christie. “Exercise Builds Brain Health: Key Roles of Growth Factor Cascades and Inflammation.” Trends in Neurosciences 30.9 (2007): 464-72. ScienceDirect. Elsevier Science Ltd., 31 Aug. 2007. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Liang, Kelvin Y., Mark A. Mintun, Anne M. Fagan, Alison M. Goate, Julie M. Bugge, David M. Holtzman, John C. Morris, and Denise Head. “Exercise and Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers in Cognitively Normal Older Adults.” Annals of Neurology 68.3 (2010): 311-18. Wiley Online Library. 31 Aug. 2010. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

“NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms.” National Cancer Institute. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Rolland, Yves, Fabien Pillard, Adrian Klapouszczak, Emma Reynish, David Thomas, Sandrine Andrieu, Daniel Rivière, and Bruno Vellas. “Exercise Program for Nursing Home Residents with Alzheimer’s Disease: A 1‐Year Randomized, Controlled Trial.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 55.2 (2007): 158-65. Rolland – 2007 – Journal of the American Geriatrics Society – Wiley Online Library. 8 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

United States of America. Boulder County Colorado. Healthy Aging Programs. Boulder County, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

United States of America. National Institute of Health. National Institute on Aging. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

United States of America. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institute on Aging. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 25 July 2016. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

United States of America. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institute on Aging. NIHSeniorHealth: Exercise: Benefits of Exercise – Health Benefits. N.p., Jan. 2015. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

Williams, C. L., and R. M. Tappen. “Aging & Mental Health.” Aging & Mental Health 12.1 (2008): 72-80. Exercise Training for Depressed Older Adults with Alzheimer’s Disease: Aging & Mental Health: Vol 12, No 1. 25 Feb. 2008. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

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