Summer Shape-up

Need a brain boost? Take a walk

May 22, 2012 at 3:05 AM ET

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A walk in the park doesn't just burn calories. It also gives your brain a boost, increasing memory and attention -- even in those suffering from clinical depression, a new study shows.

Have your healthiest summer yet! Ease into the dreaded "swimsuit season" with healthy tips from TODAY experts. All throughout May, we'll offer smart do-it-yourself ways to look, eat and feel better. So stop stressing about that swimsuit, and read on.

Summer weather inspires us all to get outside more and enjoy being in nature. But what if we have more to gain than just the pleasure of being in the great outdoors? A new study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found just that.

This study looked at people who had a diagnosis of clinical depression and measured the impact that taking a 50-minute walk in a nature setting versus walking in an urban setting would have on both memory and mood. They found that walking in a nature setting improved memory by as much as 16 percent over those that walked in an urban setting. The researchers (led by Marc Berman, a post-doctoral fellow at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute in Toronto) believe the stimulation of a city environment can cause mental fatigue, while a nature walk is restful for the mind. In terms of the effect on how you are feeling, walking for 50 minutes also improved mood in these depressed people, but, interestingly, it did not matter where they walked because both the nature walk and the urban walk improved mood.

These findings are actually not surprising, but they are encouraging. Many studies have shown that exercise is a mood booster and that depression can diminish one's ability to remember things -- so a better mood can mean a better memory. But it also shows that mood can benefit from any aerobic exercise if it is long enough in duration, and occurs often enough; memory, on the other hand, gets a better boost from a mind being in a restful state.

The good news is that a long nature walk can help with mood and memory. But it's important to remember that walks are not a replacement for treatment with either medication or therapy. If you have real depression you will need real treatment. However, a walk can be a wonderful addition to whatever treatment you are on. A walk may also improve your mood if you feel mildly down or distracted, rather than depressed, and is certainly worth a try.

With our nicest weather upon us, it's a great time to make use of walking in a lovely environment to feel better and even think sharper. Enjoy your summer even more!

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