Strengthen Your Body

Walking Improves MCI Memory

Walking Improves Memory in Mild Cognitive Impairment

by Susan G. Mason

It’s well-known that walking boosts not just a person’s overall physical health and well-being, but brain health as well. Healthy adults who take just 7500 steps per day more than their sedentary peers not only have larger brains by volume, but actually delay their brain aging by 1.4 to 2.2 years.1 But what about people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) who are already experiencing memory loss? Is it too late for them to benefit from walking?  New research indicates it can help.

The Takeaway:

A growing body of evidence indicates that walking, or any form of mildly or moderately intense physical exercise, is beneficial to MCI.

Physical Activity and Brain Structure

In 2010, Raji explored the relationship between physical activity and brain structure.2 He studied 127 cognitively impaired older adults (average age = 81 using 3D volumetric MRIs to determine that greater amounts of physical activity were associated with greater volumes of the frontal, occipital, temporal, and hippocampal regions of the brain.

Exercise was measured by the number of city blocks walked per week. For cognitively impaired individuals, walking 58 blocks, for a total of about 5 miles per week, was sufficient, according to Raji, “to maintain brain volume and slow cognitive decline.” For active participants, memory loss was reduced by 50% over 10 years.

The speed of walking did not make any difference, and there were no incremental improvements in brain volume when the amount of exercise was doubled to 10 miles per week.

Raji hypothesized that any amount of aerobic activity equivalent to walking a little less than a mile a day would show similar results but explained that he focused on walking since it an accessible form of exercise, open to people regardless of age or location.

Meta-analysis Lends Support

Song and colleagues studied the effects of physical exercise on the cognitive and psychological well-being of patients with MCI.3 They evaluated 11 studies that met their rigorous inclusion criteria, and which involved either aerobic exercise (such as walking), resistance exercise (such as weight training), or a combination of the two.

They concluded that “physical exercise, aerobic exercise in particular, benefits global cognition in MCI patients.” Global refers to overall cognition, and includes an array of functions such as memory, attention, decision making, language facility, and mental flexibility.

A Randomized Control Trial

The following year, Song and Yu studied 120 individuals over the age of 60 who had MCI.4 The participants were randomly assigned to either a moderately intense aerobic exercise program or to a health education program that did not include physical exercise. Those in the exercise group had a significantly greater improvement in cognition function compared to those who did not exercise.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Song and Yu’s community study showed that the exercise group also had improved sleep quality and fewer symptoms of depression.

Exercise Improves Brain Bloodflow

More recently, Alfini of the John Hopkins School of Public Health studied the impact of exercise on cerebral blood flow and cognition.5 He examined the effects of a 12-week aerobic exercise program on cognitively normal individuals and others with mild cognitive impairments. All the participants were between the ages 61 and 88; in addition to exercising, they underwent neuropsychological testing and MRI scans.

The initial differences in the movement of blood through certain areas of the brain between the cognitively normal and the cognitively impaired groups had improved by the end of the 12-week exercise period. The exercise program helped both the working memory and the verbal fluency of the MCI group.

Effects of Exercise on Specific Cognitive Functions

A review of 46 trials involving 5099 participants who had MCI or dementia was recently published in the Journal of Physiotherapy.6 All the trials involved physical exercise as their primary intervention. The analysis indicated a reduction in the decline of global cognition (e.g., a benefit for both working memory and for language function) among individuals with MCI who engaged in regular physical activity.


A growing body of evidence indicates that walking – or any form of mildly or moderately intense physical exercise – is beneficial to the cognitive function of elderly individuals with MCI. There remain a number of intriguing questions regarding optimal amounts of exercise, mediating factors, and causation, but there is a significant quantity of medically backed research suggesting that lacing up your walking shoes is an excellent idea.


  1. Spartano NL, et al. Association of accelerometer-measured light-intensity physical activity with brain volume: The Framingham Heart Study. JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(4):e192745. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.2745.
  2. Raji C. Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) 96th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting: Abstract SSA17-01. Presented November 29, 2010.
  3. Song D, et al. The effectiveness of physical exercise on cognitive and psychological outcomes in individuals with mild cognitive impairment: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Nurs Stud. 2018;79:155-164. doi:10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2018.01.002.
  4. Song D, Yu DSF. Effects of a moderate-intensity aerobic exercise programme on the cognitive function and quality of life of community-dwelling elderly people with mild cognitive impairment: A randomised controlled trial. Int J Nurs Stud. 2019;93:97-105. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2019.02.019.
  5. Alfini AJ, et al. Resting cerebral blood flow after exercise training in mild cognitive impairment. J Alzheimers Dis. 2019;67(2):671-684. doi: 10.3233/JAD-180728
  6. Chun-Kit L, et al. Physical exercise attenuates cognitive decline and reduces behavioural problems in people with mild cognitive impairment and dementia: a systematic review. J Physiother. 2020;66(1):9-18. doi: 10.1016/j.jphys.2019.11.014.

About the Author

MCI 911 Contributor Susan Mason | MCI 911 Mild Cognitive Impairment

Susan G. Mason

As a freelance communications specialist, Susan Mason has written more than 150 articles for national consumer magazines, served as a television script writer, authored a book on landscape design, and developed college-level curriculum materials. The former Executive Director of an education-based nonprofit, she is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wake Forest University and holds master’s degrees in Anthropology and Risk Management.