It’s time to switch off Google Maps and pull out a paper map, say scientists from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
The research team, led by McMaster University graduate student Emma Waddington, who participates in competitive orienteering (a sport in which athletes uses specialized maps of a landscape to race to a series of locations on a course from start to finish), polled 151 healthy adults ranging in age from 18-87 with varying orienteering experience.
They found that people with orienteering experience also reported having stronger navigation abilities and improved spatial memory than those with little to no experience, regardless of age, sex, or lifestyle factors.
“You see people from all ages, like eight to 87 years old, taking part [in orienteering competitions],” Waddington said. “And I’ve always thought there had to be some reason why people this old can still be out here doing such a high-demand activity.”
Waddington says orienteering or any sort of way-finding can boost brain health more than sticking strictly to your daily workout routine.
“When it comes to brain training, the physical and cognitive demands of orienteering have the potential to give you more bang for your buck compared to exercising only.”
Spatial processing and the ability to navigate are governed by an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which, according to Jennifer Heisz, Canada Research Chair in brain health and aging at McMaster University, is among the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s. This decline manifests as the difficulty navigating and getting around is generally seen in early-onset Alzheimer’s. Heisz calls it a “use it or lose” scenario.
“We’re underutilizing that brain region,” said Heisz. “And it’s almost like a muscle — if you don’t exercise it or work it out, it could atrophy faster than it normally would.”
Ancient humans used the hippocampus regularly in their lives as hunter-gatherers, but with recent innovations in GPS and navigation software, modern people rarely have to think about how to get somewhere. We just plug in our destination and go where it tells us.
Competitive orienteering is a demanding sport and may not be accessible to everyone. The rules require participants to navigate unfamiliar terrain at speed and find checkpoints using only a map and compass. These skills utilize many parts of the brain and require quick decision-making and the ability to correlate a “third person” perspective (viewing an area on a map) to “a first-person” perspective (the participants' actual surroundings).
But if running at top speed through the woods isn’t practical for you, Waddington says even small changes in navigation habits can be beneficial. Ditching your GPS in favor of a paper map or even taking a different route to work or on your daily walk or run can help. “Those are all really good ways to challenge your brain while being active,” said Waddington. “It gives you more bang for your buck than regular exercise.”
The study also notes that all information was self-reported, which may lead to inaccuracies. More research is needed to determine the scope and scale of the impact of orienteering on brain health.