Walking for a Better Brain

When a 70-year-old man walked the length of the United States in 1909, he sparked a conversation that ultimately changed medicine's ideas about the value of exercise in old age.

Edward Payson Weston started off on foot from New York to San Francisco in March 1909. He was 70 years old, and would eventually arrive 105 days later, averaging about 40 miles per day. Not surprisingly, his walk triggered a lot of talk about aging and the abilities of the elderly.

Coincidentally, that same year, several men gathered at the house of G. Stanley Hall, president of the American Psychological Association, in Worcester, Massachusetts. Present were three well-known psychologists: William James, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung.

No one thought much of this high-octane get-together at the time, least of all the participants. The 67-year-old James evidently didn’t think much of the 53-year-old Freud, but hit it off very well with the much younger and (then) much less well-known Jung.

While the science of psychology had been around for some time—the first laboratory of experimental psychology had been founded in Leipzig in 1879, and James was considered a pioneer in the field—gerontology, the study of aging, had only recently arisen, with the term itself coined in 1903. Harvard historian Jill Lepore has referred to Hall as the founder of gerontology, among the first to understand that senescence—the opposite of adolescence—was a period worth studying on its own. “Old age takes everyone by surprise, and no one ever really comes to terms with it,” Lepore wrote. “Hall thought this was because old age is the only stage of life we never grow out of, and can never look back on, not on this earth, anyway.”

Others had given thought to aging, of course—ancient Arabs had various special treatments just for the elderly—but no one person had drawn as much attention to theories of aging at the time as the McGill University-trained doctor Sir William Osler. Osler was the chief physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for 14 years, but his notoriety could be captured in a subhead on his 1919 New York Times obituary: “‘Chloroform at 60’ a jest.”

Osler had found unwitting global fame in 1905 after making an offhand comment during his Johns Hopkins valedictory address before repairing to England to teach at Oxford. Osler spoke of the “comparative uselessness of men above 40 years of age,” and made an apparently jocular reference to the Anthony Trollope novel The Fixed Period, which averred that man’s work was done by age 40, and that he ought to be “chloroformed at 60.”

Ironic comments sometimes fail to travel with their quotation marks. Osler spent much of his remaining years on the earth insisting that, no, really, it was all in jest, and that he actually didn’t believe people over 60 should be done in. (He was 55 when he made the speech. His Times obituary pointed out that “he reached the age of 70 himself, and his last 10 years formed a period of great activity and of his greatest influence.”)

During Weston’s 1909 walk, Osler’s accidental controversy was far from extinguished, and Weston—never averse to publicity—was happy to see his walk prompt the debate to flare anew. Discussion took place in newspapers and drawing rooms and among knots of people gathered along the roads to watch Weston pass by. Most had to agree that he looked healthy and active, and his life and vigor provided a welcome alternative to a lethal rag and eternal sleep. With his pluck and dauntless walking style, he demonstrated what those of advanced years can accomplish if they put their minds to it.

“Many physicians, of this city at least,” reported the New York Times, were watching his trip closely. “Their interest is not excited alone by the nature of the feat, though all hold it marvelous that a man of Weston’s age is capable of even attempting it; they are looking deeper, watching for the effect which this example will have in renewing the lost interest in walking as a pastime and an exercise, and for the effect they believe it will have in counteracting the theory they condemn—the theory that at the age of 50 or thereabouts a man is ‘down and out.’”

A column in the Dallas Morning News admitted that many considered Weston’s walk from ocean to ocean “foolishness” and “an idle waste of time.” But, the writer asked, was it “preferred to the needless senility into which far too many men begin to drift at the period of three score years and 10?” The writer chastised those who chose inertness when their working days were over, “lounging about in the sort of aimless apathy which benumbs the soul and closes up all the channels of sensation.” He went on: “Remember that there is mighty little excitement of divertissement in shuffling to town twice a day ‘for the mail,’” and that lapsing into indolence was “far more foolish and ill-advised than it was for Edward Payson Weston to start on his 70th birthday, to walk from New York to San Francisco.”

Around the time of Weston’s walk, exercise at an advanced age was often regarded in poor favor, as if practitioners were involved in a zero-sum game: If you exercised too much, you sacrificed mental agility. A “nerve specialist” from New York named J. Leonard Corning said in 1909 that he was opposed to “excessive exercise,” which was what he believed Weston’s attempt to be. He thought that with the “over-cultivation of the physique the mentality suffered.”

Corning wrote during a period when experts widely believed that brain cells didn’t regenerate. As a result, graceful aging was in large part a matter of learning to cope with gradually diminishing brain capacity. Modern science has shown that’s not the case; we do generate new brain cells throughout our lives, although the process can become increasingly imperfect and less efficient with age, as it does with much cellular activity.

But staying active helps. One study of older rats suggested that running for a total of just 11 to 15 minutes four times a week for four weeks led to healthy developments in the parts of the brain associated with memory; these rats then performed better than sedentary rats did on spatial memory tests. That’s proving true in human testing as well. One of the largest studies ever conducted was on a group of 121,000 nurses, who were surveyed on a wide range of their health and lifestyle habits starting in 1976. The survey was repeated every two years. This established a trove of valuable information, which public-health researchers have been fruitfully mining since. Among them is Rush University assistant professor Jennifer Weuve, who studied the data collected on 18,766 of the nurses, who were then ages 70 to 81, to unearth connections between exercise and cognitive ability. The results, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, suggested that those who exercised the most—the group that maintained a median level of walking for six hours a week—were 20 percent less likely to show cognitive impairment than those who exercised the least.

Other long-term studies also show that even modest exercise can serve
 as a bulwark against dementia. A study started in 1989 with 299 elderly 
volunteers in the Pittsburgh area tracked mental acuity and exercise habits.
The subjects’ brains were assessed by MRI two to three years later, and then 
again in 2008, when the first of two measurements of their cognitive function was also performed; the second of these took place four years after that.

The results, published in the journal Neurology, were sweeping and conclusive: Those who walked the most cut in half their risk of developing memory problems. The optimal exercise for cognitive health benefits, the 
researchers concluded, was to walk six to nine miles each week. That’s a mile to a mile and a half a day, without walking on Sundays if you’re inclined to follow Weston’s example of resting on the Sabbath. (This study concluded that walking an additional mile didn’t help all that much.)

A study written up in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2001 tracked nearly six thousand women ages 65 and older for six to eight years. The women were given a cognitive test at the study’s beginning and end, the results of which were then correlated with how many blocks they walked daily. Those who walked the least had a drop of 24 percent in cognition. Those who walked the most still showed a decline, but of a lesser degree: 17 percent. The results were clear: “Women with higher levels of baseline physical activity were less likely to develop cognitive decline.” Given the aging of much of the U.S. population, we’ll no doubt be seeing more research along these lines.

Peter Snyder of Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, who studies the effects of aging on the brain, recently told National Public Radio that “what we’re finding is that of all of these noninvasive ways of intervening, it is exercise that seems to have the most efficacy at this point—more so than nutritional supplements, vitamins and cognitive interventions ... The literature on exercise is just tremendous,” he said.

Indeed, a 20-year-long study in 2010 found that walking just five miles per week “protects the brain structure” over a 10-year period in people with Alzheimer’s disease and in those who exhibit signs of mild cognitive impairment. “The findings showed across the board that greater amounts of physical activity were associated with greater brain volume,” the researchers concluded. Another study, from 2012, supported those findings, also concluding that even moderate walking helped stave off further deterioration among elderly people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. That study tracked 104 Alzheimer’s patients, who were classified as either active or sedentary. Among the active group, those who walked for more than two hours a week showed significant improvement in scores on tests of their mental abilities, whereas the more sedentary patients showed marked declines.

While different studies arrive at moderately different conclusions via various routes, the recent research of dozens of scientists more often than not converges at a single intersection. And that consistently suggests that if you exercise, your brain will be fitter than if you don’t. This applies to the young, those in the prime of their days, and especially to the elderly.

The 20-year 2010 study mentioned above, results from which were released by Cyrus Raji of the University of Pittsburgh, followed 426 older adults, including healthy people along with those showing mild cognitive impairment or the actual onset of Alzheimer’s. Across test subjects, more walking was shown to result in greater brain volume. “Unfortunately, walking is not a cure,” Raji said. “But walking can improve your brain’s resistance to [Alzheimer’s] disease and reduce memory loss over time.”

Weston certainly didn’t know the details, but he understood the contours of the benefits of walking. And others noticed. “Edward Payson Weston is a living example of what open air, temperance, exercise, and healthy-mindedness will do for the human race,” one newspaper trumpeted just days after the walking septuagenarian departed New York for San Francisco. “His example is worth a hundred sermons. He is embodied disproof of the Osler theory.”

Indeed, Weston went on not only to walk from New York to San Francisco, but the following year from Los Angeles to New York. With more cooperative weather on a southern route and tail winds pushing him on, he made it in 77 days. At age 74 he walked from New York to Minneapolis, and then at 83 from Buffalo to New York.

But eventually, the car won. At 88 he stepped off a curb in Manhattan and was struck by a cab. It didn’t kill him, but he wouldn’t walk again. Bedridden, he lived to 90 and died shortly thereafter.

In his nine decades, he’d not only rebuffed Osler, but was emerged as a prescient advocate for the benefits of walking—as a way to quietly collaborate with body, brain and even society at large to build something better.

“Anyone can walk,” Weston said in 1910. “It’s free, like the sun by day and the stars by night. All we have to do is get on our legs, and the roads will take us everywhere.”

This article has been adapted from Wayne Curtis' book, The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco, and Why it Matters Today.