The news: Here's a quick solution for late afternoon brain fog that doesn't involve a third shot of espresso: Walk around the block. Just a 20-minute stroll can increase blood flow to the brain, which can boost creative thought. Regular brief strolls can enhance the connectivity of important brain circuits, combat age-related declines in brain function and improve memory and cognitive performance.
When scientists looked at the brains of regular walkers, they found some surprising physical changes. Their brain circuits, the information highways our brain cells use to deliver packets of data, were thicker than those of non-walkers, especially in the parts of the brain associated with performing complex tasks. It turns out walking is exercise for both your legs and your brain.
After just a 20-minute period, the brain scans of a group of adolescents who walked on a treadmill sparkled with activity; they also performed better on standard reading tests after their ambles.
The findings aren't limited to young people; in adults who don't walk regularly, brief strolls have been linked with more creative thinking. Studies suggest this might have to do with the fact that walking catalyzes activity in the regions of the brain associated with deep thinking.
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Here's how it works: As we age, the networks of pathways our brain cells use to carry information back and forth begin to disintegrate. The activities the brain once carried out in sync must then be performed individually. As our brains slow down, everything we do becomes more sluggish. Regular walking combats these age-related declines by protecting the most important brain networks from decay.
In young people, brief bouts of walking help increase attention span and academic performance, although scientists aren't sure exactly why. For one thing, exercise likely stimulates the release of special chemicals in the brain that protect brain cells and encourage the growth of new blood vessels.
Overall, moving around regularly improves blood flow to the brain and helps wake us up, making it easier to concentrate on specific tasks. People who do any form of exercise that gets their heart pumping also tend to have larger hippocampi, the brain region we use to recall facts and digest new information.
It's easy to make a brief walk a daily routine: Take a break (research shows the best time is around 2 p.m.) from the office to find a new coffee shop that's about 10 minutes away. You'll complete your 20-minute goal before you (or your boss) notice. Ride the subway to work? Get off a couple of stops before you arrive and walk the rest of the way.
Even if you miss one day of walking, research suggests you'll continue to reap the benefits of a regular active practice. So push away that desk chair and start moving around. Your legs, feet and brain will thank you.