Walking for 40 minutes three times a week can freshen white matter in the brain, study finds

Taking part in physical activity like walking can have a positive effect of a person’s brain as they age, a new study finds.

Researchers from Colorado State University (CSU) studied people over the age of 60 to see if physical activity had a positive effect on their brains ability to refresh its white matter, which connect cells in brains. 

They found that going for 40 minute walks at least three times a week could help refresh the brain’s white matter, and keep an elderly person cognitively strong.

The results of the research provide older people with a simple way to keep their brain healthy and active deeper into their lives.

Researchers found that members of the study that were over the age of 60 had more white matter and performed better on memory tests

White matter is the tissue at the largest and deepest part of the brain, which connects parts of the brain and spinal cord to nerve fibers.

Healthy white matter is tied to better memory, better problem-solving an increased cognitive abilities.   

For the study, published in the journal NeuroImage, the team recruited 247 participants from old age communities.

Each of the participants was between ages 60 and 80, right handed, had at least 20/40 vision and performed little vigorous physical activity in their daily lives.

Researchers wanted to make sure the participants still had decent levels of cognitive ability despite their limited activity and then split them into three different groups.

One was the control group, in which participants were put in a program where they regularly stretched and performed other routines that require little physical exertion.

Another group would go for a 40 minute walk three times a week.

The final group took part in dancing exercises three times a week, the most physically and mentally exerting task of the bunch. 

Participants underwent brain scans, in which the health and the function of their white matter was examined, and the start of the study and six months later.

Those who took part in the latter two groups showed healthier brains and bodies after taking part in the program for six months.

They had obviously become more physically fit.

Their white matter also seemingly renewed, the researchers found on MRI scans of their brains.

Those who were a part of the walking group showed the best results, and also performed the best on memory exams. 

Researchers believe that the dancing group did not perform as well as the walking group because they spent a lot time standing in place taking instructions from the teacher, unlike the walking group, which was consistently active.

The group whose activity was the fairly stagnant stretching saw their white matter actually shrink, and they performed worse on some cognitive tests.

Remaining active late in life can keep people healthier and more cognitively sound

Remaining active late in life can keep people healthier and more cognitively sound 

Dr Agnieszka Burzynska, co-author of the study and a professor of neuroscience and human development at CSU, told The New York Times that there has not been much research into white matter.

Gray matter is often the subject of much of the research performed on the brain, and further exploration into white matter has not been performed until fairly recently.

Many even believed white matter was passive, but scientists now know it affects many functions of the brain.  

Some scientists did not even believe the structure of the brain could change throughout life until only a few decades ago.

Previously, it was the scientific consensus that after childhood, the brain would no longer adapt and create new cells – instead it would just decay as life went on. 

Researchers are unsure whether the results of this study would translate to younger people as well, though they recommend people live an active lifestyle to remain healthy.

The findings offer ‘a strong case for getting up and moving’ to protect the brain’s white matter, Burzynska told The Times.