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What do 18 Holes and A Walk Have in Common?

Golf and walking…two hobbies of many of our clients (and therapists) here at Made 2 Move! What do these activities have in common? Besides the obvious physical benefits, a recent study looked into the cognitive benefits that these types of aerobic activities can have. 

We are inherently aware of the effects that exercise has on our cognitive health, as we often feel better after working out or taking a lap around the block! But what’s actually happening in our body in response to aerobic exercise like this? How can activities like walking and golfing benefit our cognitive health? Let’s dig into the research….

What Did The Study Look At?

A 2023 Finnish study compared 3 different aerobic activities: 6 km (~3.7 miles) of Nordic walking (walking with poles), 6 km (~3.7 miles) regular walking, and 18 holes of golf. Researchers were interested in the cognitive effects following acute bouts of these aerobic exercises and if effects differed between exercises. 

Researchers recruited 25 healthy, active, older (65+) adults from a local golf course in Finland. The participants were followed for 5 days and did each of the 3 types of exercise with a “washout” day in between, meaning they didn’t do an intervention on the in-between days. 

How Did Researchers “Measure” Cognitive Effects?

Now how did researchers test cognitive function after the aerobic exercise? Ask participants if they felt smarter? Their method was a bit more scientific than that.  Researchers measured the following after the 3 aerobic exercise implementations: 

  • Exerkines such as BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which made in brain and skeletal muscles, and CTSB (cathepsin-B), which is also released from skeletal muscle cells were measured following the 3 different exercises. 

  • Exerkines are signaling molecules released following acute bouts of exercise. These two exerkines, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) and CTSB (cathepsin-B) are gaining traction in current research for their potential contribution to cognitive and neurologic health throughout the lifespan. 

  • Higher levels of BDNF, have been associated with being a naturally anti-depressant that aids in learning and is released post-exercise (particularly high-intensity). One meta analysis showed that BDNF levels increased by more than 60% after older adults exercised at higher intensities  (Dinoff et al. 2017).  Additionally, BDNF serves as “a mediator of acute exercise-cognitive performance relationships” (Kettinen et al. 2023), meaning it may be one of the contributing factors to why you may feel less mentally foggy and more productive post-workout. 

  • CTSB has been studied less but is also suggested to be intensity dependent, as a recent study found that levels increased up to 20% after 30-40 minutes of exercise around >80% VO2 Max in younger individuals, while the same effects weren’t seen after moderate exercise at 40-60% VO2 max  in older adults (Mazo et al. 2022). 

  • TMT Test: Trail-Making Test

  • This is a test that is often utilized to evaluate cognitive function in older adults and is “sensitive to dementia-related cognitive decline” (Kettinen et al. 2023). This test consists of two parts: 

  • TMT-A measures lower cognitive tasks such as attention and processing speed that are needed to perform tasks such as visual searching (Kettinen et al. 2023). 

  • TMT-B “measures task-switching ability and assesses more executive function and higher cognitive functionality, requiring working memory and cognitive flexibility” (Kettinen et al. 2023). 

What Did the Researchers Find? 

  • BDNF and CTSB

  • In regards to the exerkines, no significant changes were found in the level of BDNF or CTSB immediately post-exercise. However, “Nordic walking led to a significant increase in BDNF expression, while golf also produced higher BDNF levels after approximately 35–40 hours after the first exercise” (Kettinen et al. 2023). 

  • Researchers commented that this adds up biologically! Max BDNF concentrations were present 24 hours post exercise, and remained elevated for up to 42 hours (that’s almost 2 days!) post-exercise (Kettinen et al. 2023). 

  • Researchers noted that both BDNF and CTSB are intensity dependent and since walking and golf were done at roughly 60-75% of max HR, the intensity likely wasn’t high enough to elicit significant effects on these biomarkers.

  • The TMT test

  • Researchers found significant improvements in the TMT-A test (psychomotor speed, visuospatial searching, and motor tracking of a target) with all 3 exercise types.  

  • Improvements in the TMT-B test (higher order processes and executive functions) improved after both walking and Nordic walking (Kettinen et al. 2023). 

In Conclusion…

While the effect on exerkines was not significant following these 3 types of aerobic exercises (likely due to the higher intensity suggested for their release), cognitive function still appeared to benefit as seen in the improved TMT scores. The major gist, concluded by the scientists who conducted the research themselves?: 

  • “Golf, Nordic walking, and walking can be recommended to healthy older adults as AE [aerobic exercise] for their protective effects on cognitive function. The best available evidence suggests they can be recommended as a preventive factor for older adults and potentially as a treatment strategy for those presenting decline”(Kettinen et al. 2023). 

Interested in Learning More?

Now, we don’t believe that everything you do has to be some sort of physical activity…we’re big fans of watching movies and snuggling pups on a Sunday rest day. But it is always helpful to be aware of benefits that accompany simple (okay golf is NOT that simple) additions of physical activity to our lifestyle. Especially when benefits surpass just our physical health! 

Interested in working with a PT who is just as passionate about being active as you are? (and who you may even see at one of your local workout classes!) Reach out to today to set up an initial evaluation with one of our PTs!


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