Scientists have discovered that this sport can train the brain and may help fight cognitive decline

Scientists have discovered that this sport can train the brain and may help fight cognitive decline ...

Orienteering is a sport that combines navigation and cross-country running. Participants use a map and a compass to navigate a course in the shortest time.

Orienteering, a sport that combines athleticism, navigational abilities, and memory, may serve as a viable intervention or prevention against dementia-related cognitive decline, according to McMaster University's recent research.

Researchers believe that the integration of physical activity and navigation in orienteering might increase certain areas of the brain that were essential for hunting and gathering in our ancestors.

Due to today's technologies such as GPS applications and readily available food, these same brain functions are not as necessary for survival. It's a case of "use it or lose it."

Jennifer Heisz, a Canadian Research Chair in Brain Health and Aging at McMaster University, wrote: "In the absence of active navigation, we risk losing that neural architecture."

Jennifer Heisz, a kinesiologist, and graduate student Emma Waddington, a research group, examined the value of orienteering in the treatment of cognitive impairment. Credit: Kayla Da Silva/McMaster University

Heisz refers to Alzheimer's disease, in which losing the ability to navigate is among the first signs, affecting half of all afflicted individuals, even in the least severe stage of the disease.

Researchers surveyed healthy adults aged 18 to 87 with varying degrees of orienteering experience (none, intermediate, advanced, and elite).

People who participate in orienteering reported improved spatial navigation and memory, implying that including things like wayfinding into regular workouts might benefit you over the lifetime.

Orienteering's physical and cognitive demands have the potential to give you more bang for your buck, according to lead author Emma Waddington, a grad student in the Department of Kinesiology who is a coach and member of the national orienteering team.

Researchers at McMaster University found that participants in orienteering had better spatial navigation and memory, suggesting that the sport might be beneficial in reducing cognitive decline.

Orienteering is a technique that aims to navigate by running as quickly as possible over unfamiliar terrain, finding a series of checkpoints using only a map and a compass. The most skilled athletes must manage many mental tasks simultaneously while making quick decisions.

As they go about the course, the sport is unique because it requires active navigation while making quick transitions between brain areas that process spatial information in different ways. For example, reading a map requires a third-person viewpoint on the environment.

Researchers claim that GPS systems have drained the ability to navigate out of modern life. That may also affect our spatial processing and memory more broadly, since these cognitive functions depend on overlapping neural structures.

Researchers recommend two simple methods to incorporate more orienteering into your daily routine: turn off the GPS and use a map to track your route when traveling, and challenge yourself—spatially—by taking a new route for your run, walk, or bike ride.

"Orienteering is a sport that is for life," says Waddington. "My long-term involvement in this sport has enabled me to appreciate the process behind learning navigational skills and I have been inspired to investigate the scientific significance of this sport for an ageing population."

Emma E. Waddington and Jennifer J. Heisz, 20 January 2023, PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0280435

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