Take a Hike; Get a Bigger Brain

Candice Gaukel Andrews July 5, 2011 14
Patagonia hiking

A new study shows hiking grows brains in middle-aged adults. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

You momentarily forget where you set down your keys — and you just happen to be over fifty years of age — and you can already hear in your mind the jokes that will ensue: you’re having a “senior moment,” you’ve got “old-timer’s,” or “well, age happens.” If scientists are right, however, maybe you should just forget about that car altogether and, instead, take a hike.

According to a study recently published in Proceedings, an online medical journal of the National Academy of Sciences, hiking or walking grows brains. In an experiment, a group of middle-aged adults were asked to take three forty-minute walks a week for a year. At the end of the twelve-month period, MRI scans verified that their hippocampi grew, on average, by 2 percent. Typically, the hippocampus gets smaller once a person hits his or her mid fifties, leading to memory loss. And preventing such shrinkage could improve a person’s retention for years.

This new study can be added to the long list of other recent reports that have come out regarding how beneficial the outdoors are for us, including ones that show that green settings are good for a number of ills and that being outside makes us more pleasant to be around.

So, if stress, depression, anger, and aggressiveness are all lessened in natural, green settings, nature makes us nicer, and our brains grow, what are we all still doing inside? 

Your brain on travel

Hiking kids

Young Homo sapiens sapiens on a fall hike. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation, on average, Americans spend about 90 percent or more of their time indoors. And 65 percent of that indoor time is spent in our own homes. For two-thirds of our average day, we sleep, eat, work, and watch television — for most of us, all indoor activities. Only about half of Americans exercise regularly (at least three sessions a week for thirty minutes at a time).

The great thing about travel is that it gets you moving and outdoors. And if you choose adventure travel, which is usually even more active, the benefits compound.

Travel is an especially good way to stimulate your brain. It worked for our ancestors, the early Homo sapiens sapiens. They colonized the world, while Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis) confined themselves to a smaller area centered around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe and Asia. Home sapiens sapiens’ wanderings provided a tremendous stimulation for their brains that led to the development of superior tools and survival skills. The now-extinct Neanderthals were likely just out-competed and marginalized by their more well-traveled contemporaries.

The power of thought

But there are results from another new fascinating experiment. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic discovered that just thinking about exercising a muscle could strengthen it.

For twelve weeks (five minutes a day, five days per week) thirty healthy, young adults were asked to imagine either using the muscle of their little finger or of their elbow flexor. The participants were asked to think as strongly as they could about moving the muscle being tested and to make the imaginary movement as real as they could.

Sun and sea

Imagining where we’ll go next is an exercise in adventure. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Compared to a control group that did no imaginary exercises and showed no strength gains, those who thought about using their little fingers increased their pinky muscle strength by 35 percent. The elbow-flexor thinkers increased elbow muscle strength by 13.4 percent.

What’s more, brain scans taken after the study showed that the participants had greater and more focused activity in the prefrontal cortex than they did before. The researchers stated that the strength gains were due to improvements in the brain’s ability to signal muscle.

It would seem that what all these new studies are showing us is what our ancient ancestors knew all along and what down deep we’ve probably intuitively known, too: The outdoors is good for you.

What we may not have realized, however, is that just imagining where we’ll go trekking next could be good exercise, too.

Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,



  1. Travis July 5, 2011 at 10:47 am - Reply

    Is the growth due to oxygenation or what is it specifically? Prettayy, prettaaay cool.

  2. Nine Quiet Lessons July 5, 2011 at 11:13 am - Reply

    The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for spatial memory, so it makes sense that travel promotes new neural connections there. It’s also the part of the brain that seems to “rehearse” exploring environments while asleep that you explored during your waking hours.

  3. Ben Keene July 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Nice post, Candice.

  4. C.G.A. July 5, 2011 at 12:34 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Ben!

  5. Susan Henninger July 6, 2011 at 5:26 am - Reply

    Great post Candice.

    I’m heading out to hike the Rim Trail at Taughannock State Park with my “almost 50” friends this morning and will be sure to share it with them as we struggle up the hills!

  6. Shirley Moskow July 6, 2011 at 6:58 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing. This is terrific news for those of us who love to walk.

  7. Authentic Seacoast Resorts July 6, 2011 at 6:59 am - Reply

    One more great reason to go for a hike. Thanks for sharing this!

  8. Doug Anweiler July 6, 2011 at 7:08 am - Reply

    What a great story. Thanks for sharing another reason to get outside and get on a trail for some exercise.

  9. Art Hardy July 6, 2011 at 7:14 am - Reply

    All these years I thought my backpack was getting heavy and now I know my brain was growing!

  10. John H. Gaukel July 6, 2011 at 7:20 am - Reply

    I find this article, Take a Hike; Get a Bigger Brain, interesting and would like to write a response to it. But first I’m going to take a 2 mile hike, this mourning, then after that I might be better equipped to think of a witty response. Ha-Ha !!

  11. Halina Zakowicz July 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    You might be interested in a similar piece I wrote concerning how exercise can grow your brain in a Promega Connections blog. In that piece, I mentioned how Arthur Kramer had discovered that older adults increased the size of their frontal brain lobes by engaging in aerobic exercise over the course of several weeks. These adults could also better answer learning-based questions immediately after ceasing their aerobic activity. Good stuff!

  12. Jackie July 8, 2011 at 7:53 am - Reply

    sign me up!

  13. Paul Zukowski July 11, 2011 at 6:17 am - Reply

    How great, that something I do anyway has a nice new benefit.

  14. Diane Schwartz July 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    Yes, that’s true. Hiking is the best medicine for so many things.

Leave A Response »