Step Up for Brain Health: Walking Boosts Brain Networks, Fights Alzheimer’s Disease

Resume: Walking can improve connections within and between three critical brain networks, one of which is linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, which involved older adults with normal cognitive function and those with mild cognitive impairment, showed an improvement in memory recall after 12 weeks of walking exercise. Observed brain activity was stronger and more synchronized after exercise, offering hope for combating cognitive impairment and possibly delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia.

The study reinforces the importance of exercise in promoting brain health.

Key Facts:

  1. Walking was found to strengthen connections within and between three significant brain networks (default mode, frontoparietal and salience networks), potentially improving brain health.
  2. Participants who walked for 12 weeks showed an improved ability to remember stories, demonstrating the impact of exercise on cognitive function.
  3. The study highlights exercise as a potential preventive measure or stabilizing agent for people with mild cognitive impairment, potentially delaying the transition to Alzheimer’s disease.

Source: University of Maryland

A new study from the University of Maryland School of Public Health reveals how walking strengthens connections within and between three of the brain’s networks, including one linked to Alzheimer’s disease, adding to the growing evidence that exercise improves the brain health improves.

published this month in the Journal for Reports on Alzheimer’s Diseasethe study examined the brains and story recall of older adults with normal brain function and those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which is a mild decline in mental abilities such as memory, reasoning and judgment and a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

This shows two elderly ladies walking.
After 12 weeks of practice, the researchers repeated the tests and saw significant improvements in the participants’ story recall. Credit: Neuroscience news

“Historically, the brain networks we studied in this study show deterioration over time in people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease,” said J. Carson Smith, a professor of exercise science in the School of Public Health and principal investigator on the study. .

“They become disconnected, and as a result, people lose their ability to think clearly and remember things. We show that exercise training strengthens these connections.”

The study builds on Smith’s previous research, which showed how walking can decrease cerebral blood flow and improve brain function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.

Thirty-three participants, ranging in age from 71 to 85, walked under supervision on a treadmill four days a week for 12 weeks. Before and after this exercise regimen, researchers asked participants to read a short story and then repeat it aloud in as much detail as possible.

Participants also underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) so that researchers could measure changes in communication within and between the three brain networks that control cognitive function:

  • Network in standard mode – Activates when a person fails to perform a specific task (think daydreaming about the grocery list) and is connected to the hippocampus – one of the first brain regions to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also where Alzheimer’s and amyloid plaques, a prime suspect for Alzheimer’s disease found around nerve cells, show up in tests.
  • Frontoparietal network – Regulates decisions made when a person completes a task. It’s also about memory.
  • Salience Network – Keeps an eye on the outside world and stimuli and then determines what deserves attention. It also facilitates switching between networks to optimize performance.

After 12 weeks of practice, the researchers repeated the tests and saw significant improvements in the participants’ story recall.

“Brain activity was stronger and more synchronized, showing that exercise can actually stimulate the brain’s ability to change and adapt,” Smith said.

“These results add further hope that exercise may be useful as a way to prevent or help stabilize people with mild cognitive impairment and perhaps, in the long run, slow their conversion to Alzheimer’s dementia.”

Researchers also observed stronger activity within the default mode network, within the salience network, and in the connections between the three networks.

About this news about Alzheimer’s disease and exercise research

Author: Kelly Blake
Source: University of Maryland
Contact: Kelly Blake – University of Maryland
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original research: Open access.
“Large-scale network connectivity and cognitive function changes following exercise training in older adults with intact cognition and mild cognitive impairment” by J. Carson Smith et al. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Reports


Large-scale network connectivity and cognitive function changes after exercise training in older adults with intact cognition and mild cognitive impairment


Despite growing evidence regarding the link between exercise training (ET) and functional brain network connectivity, little is known about the effects of ET on large-scale functional connectivity (FC) within and between core brain network networks.


We examined the effects of ET on functional connectivity within and between networks of the default mode network (DMN), the frontoparietal network (FPN), and the salience network (SAL) in older adults with intact cognition (CN) and older adults diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The association between ET-induced changes in FC and cognitive performance was examined.


33 older adults (78.0 ± 7.0 years; 16 MCI and 17 CN) participated in this study. Before and after a 12-week walking intervention, participants underwent a graded exercise test, Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT), Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT), a narrative memory test (logic memory; LM), and a rest break. status fMRI scan. We examined the inside (W) and between (B) network connectivity of the DMN, FPN and SAL. We used linear regression to examine associations between ET-related changes in network connectivity and cognitive function.


There were significant improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness, COWAT, RAVLT and LM after ET in all participants. Significant increase in DMNW and SALWand DMN-FPNBDMN-SALBand FPN-SALB were observed after ET. Greater SALW and FPN-SALB were associated with improved LM immediate recall performance after ET in both groups.


Increased connectivity within and between networks after ET may lead to improvements in memory performance in older individuals with intact cognition and with MCI due to Alzheimer’s disease.

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