Taking the Proper Steps: Walking, Especially in Nature, Can Improve Brain Health
Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, once stated that “walking is man’s best medicine.” That ancient axiom applies equally well for staying mentally sharp in today’s fast-paced world. Walking, especially in nature, can boost memory, creativity, and the ability to think and learn, research finds.
Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans1
Patients walking into the pharmacy should be told to keep walking.
Moderately intense physical activity, such as brisk walking, has been shown to improve cognitive function, including memory, attention, academic performance, and executive function — i.e., the ability to plan and organize; monitor, inhibit, or facilitate behaviors; initiate tasks; and control emotions, according to the U.S. government’s latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
The guidelines recommend adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination each week.
Walking is an easy physical activity to achieve these goals, and the benefits on cognition are significant.
“Compared to inactive people, people who do greater amounts of moderate- or vigorous-intensity physical activity may experience improvements in cognition, including performance on academic achievement tests, and performance on neuropsychological tests, such as those involving mental processing speed, memory, and executive function,” the guidelines state.
The government guidelines also note that popular advice, such as walking 10,000 steps a day, are not a guideline per se, but a way people may choose to meet the key guidelines. The main idea in using a pedometer to meet the key guidelines is to first set a time goal (minutes of walking a day) and then calculate how many steps are needed each day to reach that goal, the guidelines state.
Positive findings of walking are echoed in many other research reports, which also point out that the activity can improve creativity. One study found that walking outside, especially, opens up the free flow of ideas that stoke creativity.
Walking in the Woods
The beneficial effects of walking may be amplified if you take a stroll through nature. Various studies have confirmed the positive returns of exercising in green spaces.
One British study found that exercising in the presence of nature leads to positive short and long-term health outcomes. Green environments improve both self-esteem and mood, and the presence of water generated even greater effects, the study found.
For their part, pharmacists can offer simple brain health advice to their patients: Get off the couch, lace up the sturdy shoes, and get out the door for a walk to the nearest park or wooded trail.