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A daily walk boosts your mood and your brain

Liana Machado says regular walking can improve your mood and mental performance. Photo: Liana Machado

Walking 40 minutes every day can have significant benefits for your mental health and brain power.

Committing to walking 40 minutes every day can have significant benefits for your mental health and brain power.

University of Otago psychology associate professor Liana Machado has been studying the relationship between exercise and the brain for more than a decade. She says regular brisk walking is associated with a range of cognitive benefits, both directly after walking and long-term. 

“Brisk walking helps get the brain into a better space both in terms of mood and thinking ability,” Dr Machado says. 

A recent study in her lab looked at the impact of climbing a set of stairs for 10 minutes and found participants were immediately able to perform better in cognitive tests and reported feeling happier, less stressed and more energetic.

“You can get immediate effects, but of course the long-term benefits are even more important.”

Over the long term, she says studies have found regular brisk walking can actually increase the size of the brain’s hippocampus – the part responsible for memory.

“If you go for one walk you can’t expect to see an improvement in the volume of your brain, but as people grow older, if they are exercising regularly they can actually maintain a higher level of brain volume. So your brain is normally declining after your late 20s but you can maintain it better if you exercise regularly.”

The benefits are greatest for older people – halting this cognitive decline – and also for those with neurological disease, like stroke, Alzheimers and Parkinsons.

“When it comes to responding quickly to your environment, we see that decline starting from our 30s. This is where you see the benefits of exercise in older adults, who gain improvement in fast thinking and mental flexibility (switching between different tasks).”

She says some of these benefits relate to how walking improves the supply of blood to the brain.

“When the brain cells start firing, they need oxygen and nutrients from your blood and if you exercise regularly you can improve the responsiveness of your blood supply to those changing needs. That means, basically, your brain ends up in a better physiological state to support cognition.”

She says when it comes to the impact of exercise, anything is better than nothing and over-exertion won’t supersize the benefits.

“If you’re currently quite sedentary, just push yourself a little and once you get more mobile and get your muscles in the right balance then it will become easier to push yourself a bit more.

“High intensity can actually be less good. If you push your body so hard it’s not that great for you.”

People who walk regularly also feel better, with lower rates of depression, stress and anxiety, in both short and long-term, she says.

“Even just acutely, people feel less tense, but if you look at chronic symptoms of depression and anxiety you also see positive benefits from exercise.”