Wednesday 21 August 2019

How walking makes us healthier, happier, and smarter

The benefits of walking are vastly underappreciated, writes Professor Shane O'Mara. Here, he explains why it is good for the body, the brain and society at large

Walking can delay brain and muscle ageing
Walking can delay brain and muscle ageing
Professor Shane O’Mara is urging us all to get out more. Photo: Bríd O’Donovan

You're a bit overweight, and your blood sugar and cholesterol levels are a little high. You need to shift the weight and get the blood sugar and cholesterol under control. What do you do? Reach for a pill?

You're very busy, a little too stressed, and have a difficult and knotty problem to deal with. You need to focus on the problem, but find you can't. What do you do? Reach for a pill?

You're worried your memory isn't as good as it used to be. And you're always tired, and you're not sleeping properly. What do you do? Reach for a pill?

We'd all like a shortcut for helping brain and body to perform better, stronger, faster, longer. But one that is safe, reliable and easy to administer. A shortcut providing the rhythmic uptime and downtime brain and body alike adore and need. Some think it will be the new smart pill or, perhaps, the new brain training game. However, all the evidence shows smart pills and brain training games just don't work.

Yet, one of the simplest and proven methods to enhance your performance, to enhance how you feel, to enhance your memory, to enhance your reaction times, to slow down brain and muscle ageing, is available to us all. It is one easily overlooked at any age. This shortcut is not a pill. It is not delivered by your smartphone, tablet or computer screen. It promises and delivers an endless supply of unique and uplifting experiences. This simple and surprising method is: walking - our wonderful and overlooked adaptation. We all too easily overlook the gains from lots of regular walking for our health, mood, and clarity of mind.

We now live in a deeply unnatural environment, spending long periods sitting, focused on screens. When we sit, the weight of our body trunk concentrates on the lower back, and especially on the coccyx (or tailbone). Little wonder, lower back pain is such a common ailment. And what a great surprise, the remedy - to stand up and walk about - is so little understood. When we stand up, walk around and move about, our brain and body become animated. Our posture forms a vertical line from the back of our heads, down the spine to our hips, and thence to the ground. Our breathing changes and quiescent electrical rhythms come alive in the brain.

Lots of regular, high tempo walking confers many health benefits. We all should know walking is good for heart health. Walking is also good for gut health, helping the passage of food through the intestines. Regular, up-tempo walking acts as a brake on the ageing of our brains. Walking facilitates creativity, improves mood, and sharpens our thinking. Aerobic exercise after learning actually enhances recall. Reliable, regular exercise produces new cells in the part of the brain concerned with learning and memory. Walking is a marvellous feat robots cannot emulate with the fluidity of humans and other animals. Walking makes us social, freeing our hands for gestures ­- hand movements signalling meaning to others. Walking allows us to hold hands, sending signals of exclusive romantic involvement; walking on two legs frees our hands for tools, carrying children, food, even weapons of war. Marching, walking in protest, is a common feature of our free political lives, and something autocrats prevent, because of the threat to their power that co-ordinated walking en masse implies.

Movement ­- the output of the brain's activity - changes the dynamics of the brain itself. Movement is central to the ongoing activity of the brain: it changes, augments, enhances that activity.

Recent experiments show that walking increases the strength of the signals in parts of the brain concerned with seeing and other senses, such as touch. This is the biological reality of the phrase "on the prowl" - walking about - helps you discover things more quickly compared to merely sitting in one place.

We naturally think of walking as combining seeing and moving. We see, we work out where we want to go, and we walk there. However, people who are completely visually impaired - even from birth - can walk, and can walk with purpose and direction.

How can the visually impaired do this? Those of us with normal sight are fooled by our sense of the three-dimensional spatial world as visual. In fact, as far as the brain is concerned vision is merely one sense contributing to our understanding of space - an important one - but just one. And we know this because we can find our way around familiar and unfamiliar environments in the darkness.

The brain has a highly-developed, GPS-like system for understanding our three-dimensional world, and we now have a good understanding of this system, and how it works. The brain's GPS system is distributed across multiple brain regions, and consists of brain cells that signal your position in space ('place' cells); cells that signal where you are heading ('head direction' cells); cells that signal the presence of borders, boundaries and perimeters; cells that provide a metric for space ('grid' cells).

Most humans now live in towns and cities. Most walking, now and in the future, will be urban.

However, in far too many cities, managing vehicle flow is one of the principal tasks of the urban planner. Ensuring our cities are walkable for all is merely an afterthought. We need our cities to be walkable ones, for all our sakes. We now spend most our waking and sleeping time in cars, buses, trains, and buildings, and relatively little time with wind and natural light on our faces. This happens because of the design of our built environment, unless we design nature and walking into our urban world. There are well-known systematic differences in mental health between sterile urban environments, and those that aren't.

"Leafy suburbs" are objects of derision and desire. Derision, because they are stereotyped as staid and dull; but desire, because the green spaces, trees, and grass induce positive mood states easily and quickly. And leafy suburbs come at a premium price.

Footpaths often seem like secondary thoughts for urban planners, despite the fact that in terms of sheer volume, measured in persons per second, or per metre, footpaths often carry substatially greater numbers of pedestrians than the adjacent road carries cars. Stand at a busy city centre junction for a moment: count the cars passing through during a single traffic light cycle. Now, turn your back to the road: count the pedestrians for the same traffic light cycle. And you will often find footpaths carry more pedestrians than roads carry cars. And yet for some unspoken reason, crowding us together on footpaths seems OK. It's not. Pedestrians and the mobility-impaired need better, wider, easier footpaths.

Walking is good for the body, good for the brain, and good for society at large. The converse is also true. We pay the price for our lack of movement, whether it arises because of our office lives, being a couch potato or whatever. We need to start walking again, and we all should start walking again. We, and our societies, will be the better for it.

⬤ Shane O'Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College, Dublin, and author of the recently-published 'In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk, and Why it's Good for Us' (Penguin Random House)


Make walking part of your life

■ Ease your way into it: You don't have to walk sizeable distances to start with. Begin with a 15 minute stroll, and take it from there.

■ Find an interesting route: It's a bonus when you're surrounded by natural beauty, such as at a beach or in a park. Switch up your route so that monotony doesn't set in.

■ Seize every opportunity you can: Instead of trying to pack walking sessions into an already busy schedule, find ways to easily incorporate them into your life. 'Walk' errands; have a walking meeting; carry shopping bags in from the car, one at a time; park a good distance away from your destination.

■ Get the right gear: Ill-fitting footwear and lack of a waterproof jacket might deter you from taking a walk. At the very least, invest in comfortable shoes with good arch support.

■ Start counting: It's not essential but a pedometer can give you a sense of achievement when you see how many steps you've clocked up and can inspire you on to greater lengths.

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