Walk, Talk and Sharpen Brain Function All At Once

Like many people I know, I love when I can get two or three things accomplished at one time. So I was delighted when I recently came across an idea on how to bundle mental, physical and social stimulation — all vital to staying sharp as we age — into one really enjoyable activity: walking book clubs.


The brainchild of neuroscientist Arthur Kramer, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), the idea involves getting together a group of friends who enjoy reading for regular walking discussions. (And by the way, the discussion could just as easily center on politics, theater or learning a new language.) It makes perfect sense. As a specialist in aging research, Dr. Kramer  says studies show that remaining intellectually active and engaged is key to keeping our brains in high gear. A second requirement for maintaining brain health, also backed by extensive research, is regular physical exercise, especially aerobic. And science tells us there is a third, crucial key to life-long solid brain functioning — involvement with other people.

As Dr. Kramer described his idea to me, I was reminded of a story I did last year on natural ways to stave off age-related memory loss, in which Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, an associate fellow of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and author of Brain Longevity, told us that the simultaneous combination of mental and physical activity is especially powerful. This is because it increases blood flow, activates neurosystems and increases glucose and oxygen, building up what he calls the “cognitive reserve,” which he likens to a “savings account for your brain.”


As such, a walking book club has potential to be the total brain health mix — people return to meetings again and again, using their intellectual skills to argue and discuss, and by adding walking to the talking, voilá, the complete package. Dr. Kramer admits he came up with this concept off the top of his head, but his motivation has a sense of urgency. “As we age, it’s vital to find activities that fulfill the three functions of exercise, cognitive stimulation and social interaction — and do them often,” he said. The physical effort would require a relatively brisk pace to be effective, but Dr. Kramer cheerfully observes that being distracted often helps people move faster. The only caveat, he adds, is to avoid walking in areas with traffic just to be sure that book chatter doesn’t distract from danger.