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As people age, exercise remains important. However, people may sometimes feel that if they were not physically active in their younger years, it's too late to start. This is not the case. Recent research has shown significant benefits for people from the age of 55 to 80, and while 80 was the cutoff point for the research, it's likely that even older adults can enjoy the same or similar benefits.
This past year, the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois studied 120 people who had been sedentary and found that walking improved memory. The size of the hippocampus increased in subjects who walked only three days per week. The hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory, and the walkers showed measurable improvement in this area when the study was completed.
Sedentary was defined as people who hadn't exercised for more than half an hour in the previous six months. The subjects were divided into two groups. One group only did exercises that stretched and toned the body but did not engage in aerobic activity. The second group started out walking slowly. They began at just ten minutes for three times per week, but they gradually increased their walking time to forty minutes.
Several assessments were made on the subjects over the course of the study including a spatial test, a brain scan, and a blood test for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is necessary for the brain to continue growing new cells. These assessments were done at the start of the study, at the six-month mark and after one year.
Aerobic Exercise the Key to a Healthy Brain
"The results of the study are compelling," says Dr. Nicole Anderson, Associate Professor, Departments of Medicine (Psychiatry) and Psychology, University of Toronto. Both spatial memory and BDNF improved in both groups. However, the walkers showed hippocampus growth where the stretching and toning group did not. Walking didn't just increase the size of the hippocampus however. It prevented the hippocampus from shrinking 1 to 2 percent over the course of the year. In addition to improving memory, the moderate exercise may have led to the formation of new neurons.
Alternatives to Walking
Unfortunately, many people are unable to walk for forty minutes at a time, and this can be particularly true as people age. Some people have bad knees or balance issues. Others may live in places where the weather is too hot, too cold or too inclement for much of the year to make walking safe. In the latter case, mall walking or a treadmill can substitute for walking outside. In the former case, it's likely that other aerobic exercises will have similar effects. Swimming or other types of movement in water can be particularly good exercises for people with joint or balance problems or pain issues.
The researchers also point out an additional factor. The participants in both groups worked out together. Social interaction is important in keeping the brain and the memory healthy as well. Researchers do not know whether this contributed at all to the preservation of memory, but it is another health factor that people should consider as they age.