Taking regular walks may do much more than improve physical health for adults with Down syndrome.

New research finds that walking three times a week for 30 minutes could prompt meaningful improvements in cognitive activity within weeks.

For the study, 83 people with Down syndrome living in 10 different countries were divided into four groups. Some of the participants were told to walk three times a week for 30 minutes while others were asked to do a series of cognitive and executive function exercises. A third group did both the physical and cognitive activities while a fourth group did neither.

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All of the adults in the study were provided a Fitbit to record their activity level and they completed physical and cognitive assessments at the start and end of the study.

After eight weeks, researchers found that individuals in the group that participated in the walking exercise as well as those in the group that completed both the physical and brain health activities increased the distance they could go in a six-minute walk test by about 10%. They also showed significantly fewer errors and increases in correct responses on a cognitive activity.

The study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health also found marked improvement among those in groups that did either exercise, cognitive training or both on a separate test that measured the speed and accuracy of decision-making.

“These findings are potentially huge for the Down syndrome community, particularly as walking is a free activity in which most people can engage,” said Dan Gordon, an associate professor in cardiorespiratory exercise physiology at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom and a senior author of the study. “Improved cognitive function can lead to increased societal integration and quality of life, which is important given this is the first generation of those with Down syndrome who will generally outlive their parents.”

Gordon noted that even though walking is often considered a subconscious activity, it actually requires a good amount of information processing.

“In our participants with Down syndrome, we think walking has the effect of activating locomotive pathways, driving cognitive development, and improving information processing, vigilance, and attention,” Gordon said.

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