Dr Gopee

Walking Expands The Brain – and Can Open Up Minds

— Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

There is not a day that goes by without some article or the other reminding us of the benefits of exercise and diet for our health and well-being. There are articles in both scientific journals and the lay press. In the latter, repetition of the advice given by professionals is one way of trying to influence the behaviour of the individual as well as the population at large. Sad to say, notwithstanding this regular exposure of the public to these validated messages, the rising tide of many diseases in countries spanning all income levels indicates that people are not paying as much attention as they should to the advice that is being dispensed.

There is an old saying, ‘you can take a horse to the water but you cannot force it to drink’ which is particularly apt in this context. Efforts at creating awareness seem to be reaching only so far, and it is the common experience of doctors worldwide that people are more focused on treatment of disease than its prevention. In other words, they do not take too much trouble to maintain themselves in good health, and when disease strikes they expect that medicine will produce magic and instantaneous cures. This is unfortunately not the case, especially for what used to be thought of as the diseases of affluence such as cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, strokes, mental problems and so on. However, these diseases are now found as much in poorer as well as in richer countries because, as an expert put it, of the ‘coca-colonisation’ of the world. And it goes without saying that the poorer countries are much less prepared, both financially and otherwise, to face the situation.

In fact, an article in the British press on Sunday 28 November expressed concern over the marketing of fast foods that targets children in particular. Here are some extracts: A controversial government programme which gives fast-food chains influence over healthy eating policies has come under severe criticism after US research revealed the extent of “relentless marketing” of unhealthy food and drinks to children.

A report by the authoritative Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found companies such as McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Burger King spent more than $4bn advertising predominantly unhealthy fast foods in 2009.

Children and young people in the US are bombarded with increasing numbers and types of advertising through TV, radio, magazines, sophisticated websites and phone applications in spite of appeals from the White House to be more responsible, according to Fast Food F.a.c.t.s. Between 2007 and 2009, McDonald’s and Burger King increased the number of TV adverts for children by 20 per cent and 10 per cent respectively despite pledging to improve food marketing to children. The report, which analysed 20 of America’s most popular fast-food outlets, found less than 1 per cent of kids’ meal combinations met nutritional standards.’

Alan Maryon-Davis, honorary professor of public health at King’s College London, said that ‘the report is a powerful wake-up call for us in the UK’ where, ‘according to the Health Survey for England, nearly two-thirds of all Britons are overweight or obese and the number is rising.’ Attention was drawn to a 15-year study which was published in the influential medical journal The Lancet in 2004, which found that regularly eating fast food increased the risk of obesity and diabetes.

But there is also good news, especially for those at the other end of the age spectrum. Thus, another article titled Walking six miles a week boosts the brain published in The Independent UK Online on Monday, 29 November 2010 should make us get going! It contains encouraging news that: ‘…Healthy people who walk at least six miles a week have bigger brains, better memories and improved mental function compared with couch potatoes, a study has found.

Among older people showing signs of forgetfulness, walking even five miles a week – a daily 20-minute trip to the shops – slowed the progression of their condition.

The findings suggest that walking is the best way of preserving both mental and physical health (bold added) in old age. Research has shown that it is an ideal form of exercise for maintaining physical fitness and warding off heart disease. Now scientists have found that it can maintain mental fitness and ward off Alzheimer’s disease as well. A 10-year study of more than 400 elderly people found that greater amounts of physical activity were associated with greater brain volume.

Dr Cyrus Raji, of the department of radiology at Pittsburgh University, who led the study, said: “Volume is a vital sign for the brain. When it decreases that means brain cells are dying. But when it remains higher brain health is being maintained.”

Dr Raji added: “We found that walking five miles a week protects the brain structure over 10 years in people with Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment.”

Healthy adults needed to walk at least six miles a week to maintain brain volume and reduce their risk of mental decline.’

Can’t we find 20 minutes a day for ourselves?! That would leave us with 1420 minutes for the rest of the day to pursue our remaining occupations. Worth a thought – and a try, isn’t it? But why only 20 minutes – add another 10 and that’s a whole half hour of the 24 hours that make up one day, 1/48th of the day to devote to our health: present and future! Surely that is not asking too much?

The benefits of exercise have been well-known empirically and need no formal proof, but all the same scientists and doctors make it a point to furnish the same by means of studies using the latest tools, amongst others imaging of the brain by sophisticated means. It is up to us to take cognizance of these very encouraging findings and to apply them in our daily life – at no cost! It baffles me why so many educated people fail to act upon such valuable information, using it to better their lives and by word of mouth spread the message around.

A good way to start would be with the family. One of the greatest joys in life is no doubt to take one’s children for walks in the midst of nature. One can never know where this can lead to. I remember reading about John Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in physics, who wrote that his keen powers of observation were the result of his walks in the lovely woods of the Catskill region in New York with his father, who would point out to him many features of the plant life around. I am sure that many of us have equally fond memories too.

Indeed, walking is the easiest form of exercise as it does not require any expense: in fact, it’s the other way round, because walking makes us spend our calories. And the equation for health. from this point of view is very simple: to maintain our weight, we must burn the calories that we put into our bodies through food. But even if we are somewhat overweight we need not despair, because it has also been found that even if we do not lose weight, walking regularly helps to restore our vital parameters – blood pressure, levels of blood cholesterol, glucose, etc., — towards normal. Besides, as we walk we are exercising all our joints and muscles and this keeps them supple and in shape, and we are less likely later to suffer from the aches and pains that come with ageing bones.

And, as the study quoted above shows, walking also helps not only to maintain but to actually increase the brain volume, and this indicates healthy brain cells with therefore less chances of having mental problems. What walking does too is to increase the speed of the circulation, so that the blood flows into tiny channels called capillaries that would otherwise remain closed. When these collaterals, as they are known, open up, all the tissues of the body become better irrigated with blood – hence the nutrients from the food we eat reaches them more easily, and so too the waste materials produced (carbon dioxide, urea amongst others) are more easily carried away.

And here too the GIGO formula applies – partially though, because the excess garbage accumulates inside the body, mainly as fat, instead of going out. Hence obesity, or other disease caused by harmful substances in the food, especially fast food. Common sense dictates that we need to eat good food so that good nutrients reach our tissues through all the collaterals that open up during walking.

And when we walk, we stand to gain whether we do it alone — which gives us time for introspection, or as also happens, we do so with friends and acquaintances old and new, from whom we stand to learn so much especially if we belong to different walks of life. The occasion for sharing is tremendous, and this opening of the minds — for those who are willing to – is surely one of the greatest joys that can befall us.

With so much to gain and nothing to lose, why not simply walk everyday, starting today? Better still, why don’t you make it your advance New Year 2011 resolution – and look forward to a lifetime of good health? Best of luck…

RN Gopee

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