Walking : Big Benefits for the Brain

It is a well established fact that better cardiovascular health gained by regular exercise reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels. Now, new research suggests that regular cardiovascular exercise might benefit your brain as well. Two separate studies published last September in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) report that walking regularly may help preserve mental sharpness.

If you already play sports or jog, swim, or cycle, you're ahead of the game. But even if you don't exercise regularly, walking is one of the easiest ways to begin: It's easier on the joints than jogging and racquet sports, generally safer than outdoor cycling, and typically more convenient than swimming. Walking also strengthens bones and reduces bone density loss.

Brain Boosting Data

In a study of more than 18,000 female nurses age 70 and older, those who walked the most (at least 1.5 hours per week) scored higher on tests of general thinking ability, verbal memory, and attention than did women who walked the least (less than 40 minutes per week). In addition, the most active women were 20% less likely to be considered cognitively impaired.

Similarly, a study of more than 2,000 men over age 70 in Hawaii showed that regular walking reduced the development of dementia (including Alzheimer's disease). Researchers suspect that better overall cardiovascular health-which translates into improved blood flow to the heart and brain-is behind the better mental functioning of the exercisers. Research also suggests that exercise promotes the preservation of brain cells and increases the connections between them.

Top Ten Walking Tips

Tip 1: Clear it with your doctor. Most people who are generally healthy can start a moderate-intensity walking program without needing a physical. However, it is important to check with your doctor if you have a chronic health problem, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, heart disease, or type 2 diabetes.

Regular walking can improve most health conditions, but they need to be taken into consideration before you begin. For instance, people with diabetes may have special challenges with peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) and foot problems that require special shoes, while heart failure patients might be advised to progress much more slowly. Regular walking can also be risky if you have been diagnosed with advanced osteoporosis because you are at increased risk for a fracture if you fall.

With or without a checkup, if you experience chest pain, dizziness, palpitations, or shortness of breath with exercise, see your doctor.

Tip 2: Buy walking shoes. Walking requires no special equipment and is something you can do almost anywhere. Widely available "walking shoes" with sturdy but flexible nonslip soles, good arch support, and adequate heel padding (for shock absorption) are all you need.

Tip 3 : Start and stop slowly. Five minutes of slow walking at the beginning and end of each walk is recommended to allow your body to adjust gradually to the changes in your exertion level. As part of your warm up and cool-down you may also want to start and end each walking session with some gentle stretches. Stretching should not be painful. Stretch slowly, only as far as you are comfortable, and without jerking or bouncing. A general guideline is to hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds at a time and to repeat each stretch 3 to 5 times.

Tip 4 : Use good form. Try your best to use good walking form-chin up, shoulders slightly back, and toes pointed forward. Your heel should strike the-ground---first, and your weight should then roll, forward on your foot. Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle and swing or pump your arms at your sides as you walk. Try not to clench your fists.

Tip 5 : Take the talk test. All walkers should periodically take the "talk test" to ensure that they are not overexerting. The talk test measures exercise intensity: When walking at a moderate intensity, you should be able to comfortably carry on a normal conversation. If you are too out of breath to do this, your pace is too vigorous. If you can sing as you walk, however, you are exercising at a light intensity and may want to step up the pace a bit.

Whatever your exercise intensity, you should stop walking immediately if you experience dizziness, chest discomfort, severe headache, or other unusual symptoms. If the symptoms don't subside, you should seek immediate medical attention.

Tip 6 : Walk longer each week. If you have been physically inactive for some time, you need to start slowly and gradually increase your walking time over several months. Depending on your general health and cardiovascular fitness level, your first few walks might last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. No matter how long or short your first walks are, the key is to increase your walking time by a few minutes each week. As your fitness level improves, you can pick up the pace until you are walking briskly for at least 30 minutes daily, at least 3 days a week-the level of exercise recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts note that two 15 minute walks at different times of the day can be just as valuable as one 30 - minute session.

Tip 7 : Stay motivated. Starting a walking program is sometimes easier than maintaining one. But many walkers remain highly motivated to continue walking by the way it has made them look and feel-or by improvements in their blood pressure, cholesterol numbers, or blood sugar levels.

Set goals and keep track of your progress in a walking log. Your log might include how many days you walked each week and for how long, and you may want to record your weight and information about improvements in blood pressure or other health conditions.

Tip 8 : Stick to a schedule. Choose a convenient walking time and try to stay with it. Treat your walking time as you would any other important appointment. On the other hand, be flexible. If you miss a few sessions, don't give up. Just start back where you left off and keep walking.

Tip 9 : Walk with a partner. A spouse, friend, or even your dog can encourage you to walk on those days when you don't really want to. Consider forming a neighborhood walking group.

Tip 10 : Add variety. Find another activity to alternate with walking, such as cycling, or join a health club or your local community center, where you can add swimming or indoor cycling or weight lifting to your regular exercise program.

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