Uneven Ground: Hiking and Neuroplasticity

“Man walks off his Parkinson symptoms”. That is the headline that caught my eye. Now obviously we know that hiking is good for us. It gets us outside, improves strength and cardiovascular health, has a huge positive effect on mental well-being, and so much more; however, could it reverse the effects of something like Parkinsons?

website-neuroplasticity-300x300My sons genetic condition, STXBP1, often gets compared to Parkinsons and so I was immediately drawn to this headline. It turns out that a man named John Pepper actually retrained his brain to overcome his foot drag and tremors that had developed due to Parkinson’s disease. (I have linked the article here) Basically, by thinking about his movements and the mechanics of walking, John was able to retrain himself to use a different part of his brain to walk. This to me was an amazing example of something I had been reading a lot about called “Neuroplasticity”. Neuroplasticity has been becoming more and more popular and is pretty much defined as the “… brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment,” often by using parts of the brain to take over tasks that are normally assigned to an inactive or damaged area.

Now, before we continue, I should warn you that I am not a “science” person, so my understanding of Neuroplasticity is not very sophisticated, but I can tell you why it is of interest that simply walking, especially on uneven ground, may be of interest for parents of special needs kids.

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First of all, hiking is exercise, and according to Wilcox et al. “Exercise sets into motion an interactive cascade of growth factor that has the net effect of stimulating plasticity, enhancing cognitive function . . . [and] stimulating neurogenesis” (Wilcox et al. 2009). Neurogenesis is the process by which nervous system cells, known as neurons, are produced by neural stem cells, but the creation of neurons is only the first part.

Research shows that we have the capacity to grow new neurons above and beyond what is generally produced in our hippocampus and to make them become mature and strong within weeks and months. According to this research the best way to generate new hippocampal neurons is to exercise. In one study comparing brains of two groups of mice, the group that was assigned to running generated far more new neurons in their hippocampus than the group that was assigned to a regular cage without a running wheel. Other studies have shown that people who exercise regularly and are physically fit have a much bigger hippocampus. The more you walk, the bigger your hippocampus will get and the less would be your risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. One study showed that walking one mile a day lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 48%. (Varma et al., 2015)

When we walk on even terrain such as concrete, tarmac, tile, our movements become patterned, repeatable, and encoded, yet when we walk on uneven ground every step is different, this is why engineers still have difficulty programming bipedal robots to walk on uneven terrain. When we are engaged in activities, like hiking, with each step our brains must perform all kinds of micro-calculations in a split second.

When walking on even surfaces, we experience very little swing from side to side in our forward-moving gait, the way we take a stride, so when the ground beneath our feet is constantly changing, with different angles, textures, springiness, supportiveness and even hidden tripping hazards the increased shifting of our centre of gravity means more muscle effort and tissue movement is required to keep our balance, footing and forward motion without falling down. This practice improves our proprioception and, in theory, creates new neural pathways as our brain fights to calculate how to keep us upright.

A recent study out of the Oregon Research Institute (ORI) confirmed earlier findings from a pilot study that walking on cobblestones resulted in significant reductions in blood pressure and improvements in balance and physical performance in adults 60 and over. Perhaps this has to do with the same experience John Pepper had retraining his brain. Of note is that this study was rooted in traditional Chinese medicine where adults of all ages would spend 30 minutes a day walking, standing, and even dancing on uneven cobblestone surfaces to improve pain relief, sleep, physical and mental well-being. (ORI, 2005)

So… does this mean that hiking is a hidden cure for children with special needs, adults with brain injuries, or sufferers of Parkinson’s disease? I do not know. What I can tell you is that I believe that, in more ways than one, whether physical or emotional, hiking is therapy.

Since we began hiking my youngest sons balance, strength, and gait have all improved. He has become more vocal, increased the number of sounds he can make, communicates more clearly and I have recently noticed that he is able to avoid obstacles that he doesn’t seem to even look at.

Much of what I have read about Neuroplasticity involves conscious activity, much like in John Peppers story, that many special needs children have difficulty with; however, when hiking problem solving becomes involuntary. The brain knows that it needs to have a strong mind-body connection or it will trip, stumble and fall.

My advice… give it a try. Start slow with gravel paths, trails through local parks, or sand on the beach. If nothing else our children get more fresh air and exercise, and that is never a bad thing.

Happy Hiking!

The Walking Dad.

 

 

Oregon Research Institute. (2005, June 30). Oregon Study Confirms Health Benefits Of Cobblestone Walking For Older Adults. ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050630055256.htm

Varma, V. R., Chuang, Y. F., Harris, G. C., Tan, E. J., & Carlson, M. C. (2015). Low-intensity daily walking activity is associated with hippocampal volume in older adults. Hippocampus25(5), 605–615. doi:10.1002/hipo.22397

Wilcox, S, Sharkey, JR, Mathews, AE, Laditka, JN, Laditka, SB, Logsdon, RG, Sahyoun, N, Robare, JF & Liu, R 2009, ‘Perceptions and beliefs about the role of physical activity and nutrition on brain health in older adults’, The Gerontologist, vol. 49, no. S1, pp. S61-S71,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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