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Many of us find walking a more acceptable and achievable form of exercise than running or going to the gym. And research has shown that as well as keeping us trim it may preserve memory and stave off depression, cancer and diabetes.

It is difficult to avoid advice to exercise more.  But many of us have no desire or ability to run, or join a gym. But did you know that walking can prevent all manner of conditions including depression, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes and memory loss?  One doctor even prescribes walking to his cancer patients.

Size matters – at least in your brain

As we age our brains shrink in size, with resultant reduction in function.  Hence it becomes harder to remember things and it takes us longer to do things.  In Alzheimer’s this reduction in brain size is accelerated well beyond the normal shrinkage seen with age.

The part of the brain affected is called the hippocampus and loss of mass, which occurs at a rate of 1 to 2% every year in older people seems particularly to play a role in memory loss – both age-related and in Alzheimer’s.

 Researchers have found evidence that declines in a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) could also be important in memory loss, depression and shrinkage of the hippocampus.

Walking maintains the hippocampus

The good news is that research has shown that moderate intensity aerobic exercise (brisk walking) is not only associated with maintenance of BDNF levels and hippocampal size, but could also reverse shrinkage. It was found that in the walkers the size of the hippocampus increased by 2% - making it equivalent in size to those in people 1 to 2 years younger. 

The people who took part in the study were aged between 55 and 80 years, which shows that even in older people (where shrinkage of the hippocampus has already started), it is not too late for exercise to improve memory function. 

They also found that those in the control group (who didn’t do the exercise) who were fitter at the start of the study had less hippocampal shrinkage than those who were less fit.  This showed that even previous exercise had a protective effect on brain size.

Other studies have also shown a protective effect of exercise in warding off Alzheimer’s Disease.  The earlier in life people develop Alzheimer’s the worse the disease and outcomes are.  This research shows that at any age, walking as exercise can help put off or possibly avoid decline in memory and onset of Alzheimer’s.


It has also been found that depression is also associated with reduced levels of BDNF and shrinkage of the hippocampus.  This may help explain the known link between depression and Alzheimer’s disease.  But since depression can occur at any age, this is worrying as it would seem to predispose people with depression to early onset of Alzheimer’s. 

It has been found that antidepressants seem effective in raising levels of BDNF but rather than taking drugs with side effects, it might be better to raise BDNF levels by walking.

Other researchers have found significant improvements in people with depression who walked, and that walking had a similar effect to other forms of exercise.

Walking Improves Cancer Outcomes

Two studies published this year have shown better outcomes in cancer for people who exercise more.  Both studies were in people who developed colon cancer and found that the outcomes were greatly improved in people who exercised both before and after their diagnosis.  

And we’re not talking marathons, in one of the studies it was found that 150 minutes a week i.e. two and a half hours, or an average of just under 22 minutes a day, of walking was enough to have an effect. 

Walking prescribed for cancer patients

As a result, Dr John L Marshall MD, a cancer specialist at Georgetown University Hospital, Washington DC prescribes walking for his cancer patients.  He advises patients to get a dog in order to make sure they walk regularly. He said the research showed that the reduction in patients’ chances of dying from colon cancer was greater than could be obtained by chemotherapy.  He added that exercise both before and after diagnosis produced the greatest benefit, but even taking up exercise afterwards proved beneficial, showing again, that it’s never too late to start. He says he tells patients:

‘Now is the time for intensive physical activity. You always said you wanted to get in shape. Well, now is a good time to do it, and with good reason, because the magnitude of benefit of the physical activity may be, in fact, greater than the magnitude of chemotherapy.’

Walking protects against other cancers too

Other research have found that walking delayed progression of disease in men diagnosed with localized (not spread) prostate cancer. Of particular interest was the finding that brisk, as opposed to leisurely, walking produced the greatest benefits. There was a 57% lower rate of progression in the men who walked briskly for 3 hours a week or more, compared with those who walked at a leisurely pace for less than 3 hours a week.

Another study found that brisk walking reduced the chances of developing breast cancer after the menopause (the most common time to develop the disease).  They also found that stepping up the level of activity after the menopause, to more than half an hour every day, was more protective than continuance at a lower intensity.

Ward off diabetes by walking

Lifestyle interventions which include daily walking, have been shown to reduce the number of people progressing from prediabetes to full-blown type 2 diabetes.

 Prediabetes is a condition often seen in overweight and obese people, where there is raised blood glucose and resistance to the effects of insulin. If the effects seen in prediabetes are not reversed, it will inevitably progress to type 2 diabetes, and the negative impact on health which that disease brings. 

So whether you are currently healthy or battling diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s, the message is clear, get a dog and start walking!

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