“It is the best of humanity, I think, that goes out to walk. In happy hours all affairs may be wisely postponed for this.“ – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Country Life, 1857
When’s the last time you took a walk? Not walking to get somewhere or on a treadmill, but simply as a pleasure activity, with no particular destination in mind. In our frantic, digitally-tethered, over-stimulated culture, the purposeless walk is going the way of the Dodo. Which is bad news for… just about everything.
Besides burning calories, taking a walk is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. When walking we’re alone with our thoughts, while at the same time breathing fresh air, absorbing Vitamin D (assuming the sun is out, but rainy walks are good too!), and listening to the soothing sounds of the natural world. Still not convinced? Keep reading for more.
This Is Your Brain on a Walk
In the modern world, most work is cerebral. Instead of bulging muscles to lift a hay bale, what the average person really needs is bulging brain muscles to come up with new ideas and solve problems. According to a new study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, talking a walk is the fastest way to get the creative juices flowing. When compared to pre-walk performance, the researchers found that “creativity increased substantially when [participants] walked. Most were able to generate about 60 percent more uses for an object, and the ideas were both ‘novel and appropriate.’ The effects were found to linger for a while, increasing creativity even when the subjects sat down again.
“A study of 6,000 women, ages 65 and older, performed by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that age-related memory decline was lower in those who walked more. A study from the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville found that men between the ages of 71 and 93 who walked more than a quarter of a mile per day had half the incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, compared to those who walked less,” reports Arthritis Today. Yet another study found both adults and children “improved their cognitive performance when walking at their preferred speed as opposed to sitting or walking at a fixed, non-preferred speed.”
Tearing ourselves away from the ever-present screen to talk a walk can also help us manage stress. A UK study found that walking through green spaces can put the brain into a meditative state. “The act is found to trigger ”involuntary attention,” meaning that it holds attention while also allowing for reflection,” reports the Huffington Post. If you’d like to dig even deeper, there’s such a thing as walking meditation that incorporates many of the quiet-mind aspects of traditional meditation while moving through the natural world.
Humans spend a lot of time trying to feel happy. More often than not we turn to substances like sugar, alcohol and other drugs when we could just go walking. When we engage in sustained physical activity, like taking a 20 minute walk, our brain releases a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) that has a protective and restorative effect (which is why exercise often feels like hitting the mind’s reset button). At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, are released, blocking pain and making us feel euphoric (that’s why people talk about feeling a runner’s high).
Many of these benefits can be achieved through any type of walk, but going for a jaunt outside among the trees packs an extra punch. “Being in daylight helps keep our circadian rhythms appropriately aligned with the place that we live – which is great, because when they’re not, we experience stress,” explains Psychology Today. “Spending as little as five minutes in a nature setting if you’re engaged in some sort of physical activity results in large improvements in self-esteem and mood” and better quality of sleep.
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