Walking increases brain volume and reduces risks of decline

In the lat­est issue of Neu­rol­o­gy a study by Erick­son et al. (2010) sug­gests that walk­ing reg­u­lar­ly can increase brain vol­ume and reduce the risks of devel­op­ing cog­ni­tive impairment.

The researchers stared with 2 mains facts:

They asked 2 questions:

  • Can phys­i­cal activ­i­ty assessed ear­li­er pre­dict gray mat­ter vol­ume 9 years later?
  • Is greater gray mat­ter vol­ume asso­ci­at­ed with reduced risks of devel­op­ing cog­ni­tive impairment?

The study:

  • 299 par­tic­i­pants, mean age: 78, 182 female.
  • Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty was assessed in 1988–1989 (base­line) = total num­ber of blocks walked over 1 week.
  • Cog­ni­tive func­tions were assessed in 1998–1999 (all par­tic­i­pants were cog­ni­tive­ly nor­mal) and 3–4 years lat­er (116 par­tic­i­pants were diag­nosed with demen­tia or mild cog­ni­tive impair­ment, MCI).
  • High-res­o­lu­tion MRI scans of the par­tic­i­pants’ brains were tak­en in 1998–1999 (9 years after phys­i­cal activ­i­ty was assessed).

The results

  • Greater amounts of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty (walk­ing dis­tance) pre­dict­ed greater gray mat­ter vol­ume 9 years lat­er: the longer the dis­tance peo­ple used to walk, the larg­er their brain volume.
  • This effect was observed  most­ly in the pre­frontal and tem­po­ral regions of the brain, includ­ing in the hip­pocam­pus (a region crit­i­cal for form­ing new memories).
  • The effect appeared only when walk­ing long dis­tances (6–9 miles a week).
  • The effect was asso­ci­at­ed with low­er risk of devel­op­ing demen­tia or MCI.

Lim­i­ta­tions of the study: First, gray mat­ter vol­ume could not be mea­sured at the begin­ning of the study. Thus it is pos­si­ble that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty was not the fac­tor caus­ing the increase of gray mat­ter. Maybe peo­ple who end­ed up with big­ger brains at the end of the 9 years study also start­ed with big­ger brains, for what­ev­er reason.

Sec­ond, par­tic­i­pants were not ran­dom­ly assigned to a phys­i­cal exer­cise group and a con­trol group. It is thus not pos­si­ble to con­clude that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty per se CAUSED greater brain vol­ume in this par­tic­u­lar study. Note how­ev­er that such a causal rela­tion­ship has been observed in oth­er studies.

Strengths of the study: The sam­ple size was good and the fol­low-up peri­od long enough (13 years) to sug­gest that exer­cis­ing now mat­ters for lat­er brain fitness.

The results con­firm that phys­i­cal exer­cise is good for the brain! Aer­o­bic activ­i­ty may increase the growth of new neu­rons, the con­nec­tions between neu­rons and the blood ves­sels nour­ish­ing the brain.

Ref­er­ence:  K.I. Erick­son, C.A. Raji, O.L. Lopez, J.T. Beck­er, C. Rosano, A.B. New­man, H.M. Gach, P.M. Thomp­son, A.J. Ho, and L.H. Kuller (2010). Phys­i­cal activ­i­ty pre­dicts gray mat­ter vol­ume in late adult­hood: The Car­dio­vas­cu­lar Health Study. Neu­rol­o­gy ; 75: 1415.


  1. Mike on October 16, 2010 at 8:26

    I hon­est­ly believe this and have not­ed many times that when I exer­cise or work-out reg­u­lar­ly I feel more alert and men­tal­ly sharp­er. I also have to cred­it exer­cise in play­ing a large role in my recov­ery from a rup­tured cere­bral aneurysm. Once I was cleared by my doc­tor I start­ed a healthy diet and weight lift­ing. It seemed to improve my con­cen­tra­tion, alert­ness and, of coarse, my over­all mood. It seems like­ly that exer­cise ben­e­fits more than just our body.

  2. Ahmed on October 16, 2010 at 10:29

    100 Per­cent know exer­cise is great for the body and mind

  3. Lakisha on October 31, 2010 at 8:46

    I have to say I agree as well. Exer­cise is good for the body, mind, and soul. A 30 minute walk can improve cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment. What are you doing most­ly when you are walk­ing and view­ing your sur­rounds? You are think­ing about nume­ri­ous of things.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?