Just 6 Months of Walking May Boost Aging Brains

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 20, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- Walking and other types of moderate exercise may help turn back the clock for older adults who are losing their mental sharpness, a new clinical trial finds.

The study focused on older adults who had milder problems with memory and thinking skills. The researchers found that six months of moderate exercise -- walking or pedaling a stationary bike -- turned some of those issues around.

Specifically, exercisers saw improvements in their executive function -- the brain's ability to pay attention, regulate behavior, get organized and achieve goals. And those who also made some healthy diet changes, including eating more fruits and vegetables, showed somewhat bigger gains.

The effect was equivalent to shaving about nine years from their brain age, said lead researcher James Blumenthal, a professor at Duke University School of Medicine, in Durham, N.C.

In contrast, those same mental abilities kept declining among study participants who received health education only.

Experts said the findings support the general concept that a healthy lifestyle can help protect the brain as you age.

"And it's never too late to start," said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association. "The people in this study were older, already had cognitive [mental] impairments and cardiovascular risk factors, and they were sedentary."

Fargo, who was not involved in the research, described the findings as "great news."

He said that's in large part because this was a clinical trial that actually put exercise to the test. Many past studies have found that physically active people tend to be in better mental shape as they age. But those studies don't prove cause and effect, Fargo noted. Clinical trials do.

Blumenthal echoed the "never too late" message, and also said the exercise routine used in the trial was very accessible. People walked or rode a stationary bike three times a week, for 35 minutes with a 10-minute warmup.

"They weren't training for a marathon," he added.

Blumenthal said the same of the diet changes some study participants made. They followed the so-called DASH diet, which is routinely recommended for people with high blood pressure. It is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy unsaturated fats, and low in sodium, sugar, and meat and dairy high in saturated fat.