It helps you cope at work, 'heals' your brain, makes you more creative and it could even be better for you than running. Here are six ways walking could be more powerful than you realise.
People have long understood the health benefits of walking in nature. The wonderfully-named Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, is standard preventative medicine in Japan. And more than a hundred years ago, the great conservationist John Muir wrote: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."
But recently, science has started to catch up, and a growing body of research is showing the very tangible mental and physical health benefits walking brings. Some of these will surprise even long-time walkers.
It helps you cope at work
Forget chugging caffeine, furtively checking Facebook and unwisely dumping your boss-directed anger on colleagues after several post-work drinks – the best way to deal with the stress and pressure of wage slavery (short of abolishing capitalism) is by enjoying nature.
Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) showed the benefits of the great outdoors by measuring responses to stress during and after viewing nature in both simulated and real environments.
One study showed that just looking at slides of natural scenes could improve recovery from a stressful task, while scenes of built-up areas did the opposite. Another showed that a walk in "green" environments at lunch time led to a better sleep the following night, and over a period of eight weeks led to people having significantly lower levels of blood pressure and perceived stress. If that’s what you get from a lunchtime stroll, just imagine what regular weekend forays in the Lake District, Snowdonia and the Highlands will do.
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It might be better for you than running
Running seems the epitome of healthy living, doesn’t it? Jogging purposefully along with fancy trainers and bright clothes while listening to some inspiring tunes through headphones – what’s healthier than that?
Well, just walking, possibly. According to one study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, a brisk walk can reduce the risk of heart disease more effectively than running. The huge test involved researchers comparing data from two studies of 33,060 runners and 15,045 walkers over a period of six years. They found that for the same amount of energy used walkers experienced greater health benefits than runners, with the risk of heart disease, blood pressure and cholesterol reduced by nearly twice as much as running in some cases.
Of course, the results had to involve the same amount of energy expenditure. So because running uses approximately two and half times the energy of walking, you’d have to spend two and a half times longer doing it. And other research shows that running could be better for losing pounds, while running and walking had about the same impact on the risk of first-time diabetes – both reducing it by about 12%.
To sum up, then, both are good for you – but walking could be better than you realise (even Runner’s World think so.)
It helps you concentrate
Your brain gets tired. It’s basically a muscle with thoughts, and like other muscles it suffers from fatigue, the poor thing.
The stresses and strains of urban living, constant noise and dozens of things competing for our attention at any one time exacerbate what’s been called “brain fatigue”- when you’re distracted, absent-minded and have the attention span of a midge.
People have long understood intuitively that wandering through green space has a beneficial, calming impact on the mind, but a recent study in Scotland used technology to prove it. Lightweight brain-scanning devices were strapped to the heads of 12 people who were then sent on a walk through Edinburgh. The results showed that while busy, built-up areas induced frustration and irritation in the participants, green and parkland sections led to the brain becoming calmer and more meditative.
Naturally, this calmer state helps with brain fatigue. Jenny Roe, a lecturer at Heriot-Watt’s School of the Built Environment, who oversaw the study, told the New York Times that while natural settings engage our brain, the type of engagement is effortless: "It’s called involuntary attention in psychology. It holds our attention while at the same time allowing scope for reflection."
It ‘heals’ your brain
Studies like the one above may simply offer scientific evidence to back up something many people already knew, but they point the way to a better understanding of exactly how nature works to soothe and enhance our mental state.
Urban environments are mentally demanding places to be – dodging cars, weaving through pedestrians, staring at screens, cramming on to trains and fielding phone calls require the brain to be constantly engaged, leaving precious little room for reflection or meditation.
By contrast, researchers have claimed the beguiling sights and sounds of nature invoke “soft fascination”. Rather than overwhelming it with the energy-sapping “hard” stimuli of urban environments, natural settings gently engage the brain while allowing it ample space to ruminate in the background on life’s quandaries and complexities. In other words, it lets your mind off the hook for a while; going for a walk allows your brain to roam along with your body.
It makes you more creative
“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” wrote Nietzsche. This sentiment is echoed by many others. “Methinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,” wrote Henry Thoreau.
Freedom of thought is a vital part of the creative process, so it follows that the mental unshackling walking provides gives creativity a boost. Scientists seem to agree. On a National Trust blog, Dr Sowden of the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey writes: “Walking has been shown to improve our ability to shift between modes of thought, and to improve our attention, memory and recovery from mental fatigue, all of which are important for thinking creatively”. What’s more, “walking exposes us to the constant flux of a changing environment providing us with an endless array of new and unique experiences, which combined with our past memories may, through serendipity alone, provoke new associations and give birth to new ideas. “
Although it must be pointed out that at some point, unfortunately, you have to stop walking and do some actual work.
It can treat depression
A study by the University of Stirling on a sample of 341 patients showed a brisk walk was “an effective intervention for depression" and had a similar effect to other, more vigorous forms of exercise. The mental health charity Mind has its own research to back up this thesis. Its chief executive, Paul Farmer, told the BBC: "Exercising with others can have even greater impact, as it provides an opportunity to strengthen social networks, talk through problems with others or simply laugh and enjoy a break from family and work. So ask a friend to join you."
The benefits of physical exercise generally on treating mental health are well documented. According to one study, physical activity can even be as effective as medication in treating depression.
A 16-week study of 202 men and women found that 45% of patients diagnosed with major depression no longer met the criteria for depression after exercising three times a week in a supervised group setting. This is only very slightly less than the 47% of patients who no longer met the criteria for depression after taking anti-depressants.
Good news all round for the wellbeing of walkers.
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