A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that orienteering, a sport that combines running with map reading, may help boost brain power and fight cognitive decline. The study, conducted by researchers at McMaster University in Canada, found that people who participate in orienteering regularly have better spatial navigation and memory skills than those who do not.

The study's findings are significant because they suggest that orienteering could be a potential intervention or preventive measure for cognitive decline. Cognitive decline is a major problem among older adults, and it is estimated that more than 55 million people worldwide have dementia. There are currently no effective treatments for dementia, and the disease is often fatal.

The Study

The researchers surveyed 158 healthy adults ranging in age from 18 to 87 who had varying degrees of orienteering expertise (none, intermediate, advanced and elite). They used two survey tools—the Navigational Strategy Questionnaire and the Survey of Autobiographical Memory—to measure participants’ spatial processing, spatial memory and episodic memory. The researchers hypothesized that the physical and cognitive demands of orienteering, which integrates exercise with navigation, may stimulate parts of the brain that our ancient ancestors used for hunting and gathering. Over time, the brain evolved to adapt to harsh environments by creating new neural pathways.

Those same brain functions are not as necessary for survival today thanks to modern conveniences such as GPS apps and readily available food. Researchers suggest it is a case of “use it or lose it.”

Health Benefits of Orienteering

In addition to the cognitive benefits identified by this study, orienteering offers a wide range of health benefits, including:

  • Increased cardiovascular health: Orienteering is a great way to get the heart rate up and improve cardiovascular health. It is a form of cardiorespiratory exercise that involves running, jogging and climbing over varying terrain.
  • Improved strength and endurance: Orienteering requires the use of the whole body, including the legs, arms and core. This can help to improve overall strength and endurance, as well as reduce the risk of injury.
  • Reduced stress and anxiety: Orienteering is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety. Being in nature and navigating through unfamiliar terrain can be calming and grounding. It can also help to improve problem-solving skills, focus and spatial awareness.
  • Increased self-esteem: Orienteering is a challenging sport that requires a lot of mental and physical stamina, which can serve to boost self-esteem and confidence.
  • Improved social skills: Orienteering is a great way to meet new people and make friends. It is a social sport that is often done in groups, and it can be a great way to connect with people who share common interests.
  • Fun and rewarding: Orienteering is a fun and rewarding sport that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and fitness levels. It is a great way to get exercise, explore the outdoors and have fun.

“Modern life may lack the specific cognitive and physical challenges the brain needs to thrive,” explains Jennifer Heisz, Canada Research Chair in Brain Health and Aging at McMaster University, who supervised the research. “In the absence of active navigation, we risk losing that neural architecture.” Heisz points to Alzheimer’s disease, in which losing the ability to find one’s way is among the earliest symptoms, affecting half of all afflicted individuals, even in the mildest stage of the disease.

Participants who were “orienteering experts” reported better spatial navigation and memory than those who had no orienteering experience. Notably, the significant effects of orienteering on spatial cognition remained even after controlling for age, sex and physical activity, suggesting that adding elements of wayfinding into regular workouts could be beneficial over the span of a lifetime.

The Wide-ranging Benefits of Orienteering

“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,” says lead author Emma Waddington, a grad student in the Department of Kinesiology who designed the study and is a coach and member of the national orienteering team.

The goal of orienteering is to navigate by running as quickly as possible over unfamiliar territory, finding a series of checkpoints using only a map and compass. The most skillful athletes must efficiently switch between several mental tasks, making quick decisions while moving across the terrain at a rapid pace.

The sport is unique because it requires active navigation while making quick transitions between parts of the brain that process spatial information in different ways. For example, reading a map depends on a third-person perspective relative to the environment. Orienteers must quickly translate that information relative to their own positions within the environment, in real-time, as they run the course.

It is a skill that GPS systems have engineered out of modern life, say researchers. That may affect not only our ability to navigate but also affect our spatial processing and memory more generally because these cognitive functions rely on overlapping neural structures.

What the Research Means to Health and Exercise Professionals

“Orienteering is very much a sport for life. You can often see participants spanning the ages of 6 to 86 years old engaged in orienteering,” says Waddington. “My long-term involvement in this sport has allowed me to understand the process behind learning navigational skills and I have been inspired to research the uniqueness of orienteering and the scientific significance this sport may have on the aging population.”

The researchers believe that the cognitive benefits of orienteering are derived from the fact that it requires participants to use a variety of cognitive skills, including spatial reasoning, problem solving and decision making. In addition, orienteering is a physically demanding sport, which can also help to improve cognitive function.

The researchers believe that orienteering could be a valuable tool for preventing cognitive decline. They suggest that people who are at risk for cognitive decline, such as those with a family history of dementia, could benefit from participating in orienteering on a regular basis.

In addition to the cognitive benefits, orienteering has a number of other health benefits (see sidebar).

For those who may not be interested in participating in orienteering as a sport, the researchers offer two simple ways to incorporate more orienteering into daily life: Turn off the GPS and use a map to find your way when travelling and challenge yourself—spatially—by using a new route for your run, walk or bike ride.

However, if you or your clients are interested in getting started in orienteering, the sport doesn’t require too much to get started. There are orienteering clubs all over the world, and they can provide maps, compasses and instruction on how to use them. They also offer events that in a variety of settings, from forests to urban centers, that appeal to a wide range of skill levels, from beginning to expert.  

The next step is to learn how to read a map. Again, a local club will likely offer instruction on map reading, or you can search for online tutorials. Begin with simple courses and practice finding the controls, which are markers along the course. With practice, orienteering becomes easier and more challenging courses become more appealing.

If you or your clients are looking for a fun and healthy way to get exercise, orienteering is a great option. It is a challenging sport that can provide a variety of health benefits, so get out there and give it a try!