Sedentary lifestyles are increasingly recognized as a threat to public health. As we age, we’re often told how important it is to stay active. For seniors, not only does an active routine maintain physical health, but it’s imperative for brain health and living an independent lifestyle. But what does ‘staying active’ actually mean? Should we all be hiring personal trainers or signing up for online yoga classes? Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist and professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College in Dublin, says we don’t need gym memberships or fancy workout equipment to stay looking and feeling young. All we need is a pair of comfortable shoes to get on the move.
In his captivating new book, “In Praise of Walking,” Mara shares the research and data behind how and why walking makes us happier and healthier. According to him, it could be considered a “superpower,” especially when it comes to aging. His research explains, “walking helps protect and repair organs that have been subject to stresses and strains. It’s good for the gut, assisting the passage of food through the intestines. Regular walking also acts as a brake on the ageing of our brains, and can, in an important sense, reverse it.”
Recent experiments asked elderly adults to participate in thrice-weekly, and relatively undemanding, walking groups. In the regular walking group, over the course of a year, the normal aging of the brain areas providing the scaffolding for learning and memory is somewhat reserved in the walkers, by perhaps about two years or so. An increase in the volume of these brain areas were found; this is quite remarkable in itself, suggesting that the act of regular walking mobilizes plastic changes in the structure of our brains, strengthening it in ways similar to how muscles are strengthened when worked.
Jerry Richards, a 72-year-old retired history teacher, found empowerment when he joined a walking group several years ago. Though he was a swimmer and body builder as a young man, Richards began living a more sedentary lifestyle in his retirement. After he fell down in a slippery parking lot one winter in Topeka, Kansas five years ago he started using a cane to help him get around. When his doctor suggested he start incorporating daily walks into his routine he was hesitant.
“I’m set in my ways. I was also afraid people would wonder what that old man with the cane was doing walking around,” he said. At both his doctor and wife’s encouragement he decided to try walking around the block once in a while. Soon after, a small crew of other seniors in his neighborhood asked if he wanted to join their walking group.
Whatever hesitance Jerry once had dissipated after he realized regular walking helped improve his overall balance, his mood, and even motivated him to start working on new projects, like writing a children’s book about his life growing up on a farm in Oklahoma.
Jerry’s positive experiences are common with the side effects of walking. According to Mara’s research, “walking is associated with improved creativity, mood, and the general sharpening of our thinking. Periods of aerobic exercise after learning can actually enhance and improve recall of the previously learned material.”
Are you looking for new ways to remain active? Here are a few steps to help you start walking:
Don’t do too much too soon. Aim for 10 minutes at the beginning then slowly increase the amount of time you’re walking based on how you feel. Consult your doctor or tell your healthcare provider if you have any pain or problems walking.
Find someone to walk with
You’re likely to maintain a walking routine if you have people to do it with you. Ask a friend or loved one you think might be interested. Check with a local senior center to see if they offer walking clubs for seniors or check out The National Institute on Aging’s Go4Life campaign that has tons of valuable resources for walking and other types of physical activity.
Pick your destination
Where do you want to walk? If you feel safe and comfortable consider walking to get groceries or to a local park. Find a walking trail near you. If you’re just starting out and feeling cautious, just aim for a walk around the block.
Make sure you pick comfortable, safe walking shoes that can help reduce the risk of suffering an injury or falling. If you have any foot problems you might want to look into orthopedic shoes or talk to your doctor on best solutions to keep you walking. Dress appropriately for the weather and bring a water bottle to stay hydrated. Keep an eye out for uneven surfaces, possible obstacles, and other tripping hazards.
Do you already walk to maintain your health? Tell us how walking has been a positive in your life.