Can’t be arsed with Wordle? Hate Sudoku? Forget puzzles and lateral thinking: walking may be your best bet when it comes to boosting memory and problem solving.
These days, it’s all-too easy to forget what you’re supposed to be doing. Google Maps has stopped us from memorising routes, reminders ping us information we would have otherwise had to cling onto and Facebook saves us from forgetting birthdays. And being surrounded by technology, our concentration is also shot to pieces. Most of us can no longer walk and chew gum at the same time. But we can rebuild our capacity to concentrate and remember – without having to spend hours poring over puzzle books.
New research has found that a simple walk may be all we need to get the brain multitasking properly. Scientists from the University of Rochester have found that healthy brains are able to multitask while walking, without compromising the quality of either activity.
Researchers got participants to walk on a treadmill, with various cues to switch tasks. As they walked, a mobile brain/body imaging system (MoBI) recorded their brain activity – measuring brain changes between cued tasks. It found that during the more difficult tasks, the neurophysiological difference was greater between walking and sitting. Walking, they found, helped the brain to prepare for and execute more difficult tasks better than if the person had been sitting down.
Lead author Dr Edward Freeman says that the findings show how a healthy brain is able to switch between tasks when the body is active. Of course, it’s just the start of understanding the role that movement has in brain health, as Dr Freeman explains: “Understanding how a young, healthy brain can successfully ‘walk and talk’ is an important start, but we also need to understand how these findings differ in the brains of healthy older adults, and adults with neurodegenerative diseases.”
Walking can improve memory and brain health
The next stage of the research is going to look at what happens in a more diverse group of brains. In the meantime, we’re taking this as just one more reason to down tools and head for a breath of fresh air.
This isn’t the first piece of research that’s looked into the connection between walking and brain health, of course. A 2021 study, published in the journal NeuroImage, found that walking could improve cognitive function and memory as we grow older. Scientists separated a group of 250 older adults into three cohorts: the first practiced stretching and balance training; the second took up brisk walking; the third had dancing lessons (all three times a week). Before and after the six month period, everyone had their memory, fitness, white brain matter and cognitive health measured.
The study found that the walking group had the biggest improvement in memory skills and white matter, with a more prominent uptick in nerve fibre size and lesion healing (both indicators of good brain health). And, walkers performed better in memory tests than the dancers. Interestingly, the group that only did stretching actually saw a decline in white matter – suggesting perhaps that cardio workouts are what the brain responds to best.
While more research is needed, it’s well worth trying to get out for a walk as often as you can. You may well find that you come back to your desk feeling better able to deal with complex tasks – whether that’s battling through 100 emails or finishing a tricky assignment.
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.