Walking the walk

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Biology / Health / Myths / Psychology

It’s been claimed a humble walk can clear your head, put you in a good mood, treat depression, increase creativity, help you deal with stress, improve your health and even make you live longer. Is walking really all it’s cracked up to be? Yes, absolutely.

Is walking all it’s cracked up to be? Well, yes actually. Image credit Bruce Aldridge via Flickr

Is walking all it’s cracked up to be? Image credit Bruce Aldridge via Flickr

In the mood

You’re in a foul mood. What should you do? A: phone a friend. B: reach for chocolate. C: go for a walk around the block. Pick C: chances are you’ve already experienced the mood boost that comes from going for a walk. Me? I’d probably call a friend while walking to the local shop to buy chocolate.

But is it the act of walking itself that has an effect on mood, or some of the other things that tend to go hand-in-hand with walking? For example, maybe the benefit comes from thinking you are getting fitter in the process? Or perhaps it’s just the change of scene. Some studies have shown walking outdoors, particularly in green spaces, improves mental health far more than walking indoors. But is it the fresh air or the walking that lifts our spirits?

New research suggests it is the very act of walking that is the key. Without telling the study participants what they were testing, researchers asked people to do a series of walking or sitting activities. But the activities were carefully matched so as to be as similar as possible aside from the walking or sitting aspect. One experiment involved people either taking a short, boring tour of the inside of a building, or sitting and watching a video of the same tour. Another involved watching a video while either sitting, standing, or walking on a treadmill. The study participants were questioned about their mood before, during and after these events. In every case, walking led to positive feelings such as joviality, attentiveness, vigour and self-assurance. The simple act of walking made people feel better, even if they had to write an essay about their building tour (this part of the experiment was aptly named ‘walking dread’).

Walk, don’t run

Walking isn’t just a good treatment for mental health either. Part of the reason walking is such a health boost is that when you’re walking, you can’t be sitting. We know spending too much of our time sitting down is disastrous for our health. When we spend a long time sitting, the muscles in our legs don’t contract. This means blood, instead of being pumped back to the heart, can pool in our legs and cause serious damage to our arteries.

But it doesn’t take much to counteract the time we inevitably spend sitting down. Two minutes spent walking out of every 20 minutes spent sitting has massive health benefits and three slow, five-minute walks each day are enough to counter the negative effects on your leg arteries of three hours of sitting. These studies tell us even small amounts of walking can improve our health.

Many studies confirm the health benefits of walking: walking for an hour or two each day reduced the risk of stroke in men over 60 by a third. Just half an hour of walking each day was found to reduce the risk of dying in the next three years by one-third for people suffering kidney disease. Another study found walking 3km per day cuts your chances of ending up in hospital with severe lung disease by a half. One study even suggested walking in a forest boosts our immune systems and could play a role in fighting cancer.

If walking is good, is running better? Research published in 2013 looked at the health over a six-year period of more than 48,000 runners and walkers aged 18 – 80. The research showed in some cases, a brisk walk is better for your health than running. If you balance out the amount of energy expended on both activities, walking actually reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol more effectively than running. The difference is of course, that it takes much longer to use the same amount of energy walking as it does running.

Get your creative juices flowing

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking – Friedrich Nietzche

Today there is plenty of science to back Nietzche up. If improving your mood and health isn’t enough, walking is also one of the best things you can do to boost your creative thinking. Using standard tests of creativity, 100% of people in a 2014 study thought more creatively when walking than when sitting. On average, the increase in creativity associated with walking was measured at 60%. This was true even when the study participants were walking on a treadmill facing a blank wall. Walking appears to also help with memory – both children and young adults did better on memory tasks when they were walking rather than sitting, as long as they were allowed to walk at their own pace.

Why is walking so good for us? It may be really quite simple. When we walk, our hearts pump faster. More oxygen is delivered throughout our bodies, including to our brains. A year of walking led to new connections between brain cells in adults, and walking at least 72 city blocks a week (10 – 14 km) is linked to increased brain volume in a few different areas, including the hippocampus, an area crucial for memory. Walking arouses our whole body and gives us more energy. And because it doesn’t take much conscious effort to walk, that energy can be invested in creative thinking and problem solving.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your sneakers and out the door you go.

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4 Comments

  1. Recently my work colleague has prompted us to do a quick lap of the block to take a break while at work. I must admit I come back refreshed…I wonder if the coffee stop I introduced along the way is a contributing factor? 🙂

    • Coffee or no coffee, sounds like an excellent plan to me. I try to do walking meetings when I can too. Makes a big difference to the day I find.

  2. danijordanbailey99 says

    It really does help! Thank you! Lovely way to start my Friday morning ☺️

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