What do Aristotle, Nietzsche, Tesla, Beethoven, Charles Dickens, and Steve Jobs have in common? They all understood the power of going on a walk.
In the late 1870s, the most popular spectator sport in America was pedestrianism, or endurance walking. Thousands of people would pay admission to watch men and women walkers circle a one-sixth mile track in the original Madison Square Garden in New York — for days at a time.
That’s not exactly a craze that would resonate with a modern audience. Now the average modern individual lives an indoor and sedentary lifestyle. One major American study showed that people spend 87% of their time indoors. In England, prisoners do more physical activity than school-age children on average. 25% of British children don’t play outside at all.
You might be thinking, that can’t be healthy — and you would be right. We all know exercise is good for us, and we’ve probably all experienced a sense of relief or relaxation from just stepping outside and taking a deep breath of fresh air. Turns out, something as simple and fundamental as walking outside has all sorts of scientifically-proven immediate and long-term benefits for our minds, bodies, and spirits.
Walking and Creativity
Have you ever gotten stuck on a problem or an idea, stepped away from your desk, and just wandered around until it was resolved? You were unconsciously tapping into the phenomenon of how walking boosts creativity, following in the footsteps (pardon the pun) of great thinkers, authors, inventors, and composers throughout history.
A 2014 Stanford research project showed the impact that walking had on the “simultaneous creative generation of new ideas” compared to sitting. Lead researcher Marily Opprezzo found that “walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down.” Even walking on a treadmill facing a blank wall induced a more creative state than sitting. Overall, 100% of the walking participants showed a significant boost in creativity — an average of 60% increased creative output. This boost lingered for a few hours even after the walker sat back down.
“The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” – Henry David Thoreau
If you’re going to walk to boost creativity, you want to walk at a pace that isn’t taxing. You also want to let your mind switch between concentrating on a thought and letting your thoughts wander. When both of these mental states are active, you have the basis for creativity.
Shinrin-yoku, the Japanese Practice of Forest-Walking
Shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing, is the popular Japanese practice of walking or staying in forests to promote health. Many studies have focused on the positive effects of Shinrin-yoku on physical and mental health.
“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” – George Macaulay Trevelyan, “Walking,” 1913
You don’t need to take a whole vacation to experience the benefits. One study showed that just a short 15 minute walk through the forest resulted in decreased moods of depression, anxiety, anger, and fatigue. Interestingly, those with higher anxiety levels before the forest walk experienced a greater relief from anxiety than those with normal or low anxiety levels. Another study showed a similar effect with stress levels and forest walking: the higher the stress level, the greater the relief. Both studies also showed that participants felt increased vigor along with the reduction of their negative emotions. These studies suggest forest walking as a therapeutic option for those with chronic stress and anxiety.
If you don’t live near a forest, don’t worry. You can experience similar stress and anxiety reducing effects by walking in urban parks and green spaces.
Walking and Brain Health
Learning, brain activity, and exercise are biologically connected. This means you can grow new brain cells (neurogenesis) at any age by simply exercising. During exercise, the hippocampus (the part of the brain where learning, critical thinking, and memory take place) gets “turned on.” The hippocampus is also where the new growth of brain cells occurs. These benefits can occur after just 30 minutes of walking.
Walking also increases the blood flow to the brain, which “raises the levels of key molecules that help restructure the brain, increasing resilience and stimulating growth of new blood vessels and new brain cells.”
“A walk in the woods is the consolation of mortal men. I think no pursuit has more breath of immortality in it. It is one of the secrets for dodging old age.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Walking can also impact the risk of dementia and prevent “brain shrinkage.” A Pittsburgh University study found that people 60-years-old and older who walked six to nine miles a week retained more gray matter and suffered less cognitive impairment than those who walked less. The New York Times reports that walking and cognitive abilities are connected: “Thinking skills like memory, planning activities, or processing information decline almost in parallel with the ability to walk fluidly…In other words, the more trouble people have walking, the more trouble they have thinking.”
For a quick brain boost, research from the University of Michigan showed that “short-term memory performance and attention spans improved by 20%” after an hour’s walk outside. Furthermore, people didn’t have to enjoy their walk outside to experience the benefits. It could be done in any weather and in any mood.
Walking and Depression
10% of American adults suffer from depression, and women are 70% more likely to experience depression than men.
Even though exercise often feels impossible to someone in the throes of depression, even just managing a walk can improve their mood and quality of life. One Australian study following depressed middle-aged women showed that participants who walked 200 minutes every week experienced increased energy, had improved social lives, felt better emotionally, and were less limited by their depression, even three years later.
“The best thing is to walk…Movement is the best cure for melancholy.” – Bruce Chatwin, “Anatomy of Restlessness,” 1996
How can walking alleviate depression? Well, walking, particularly when kept up over time, spurs the release of growth proteins that cause nerve cell growth, thus improving brain function.
Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains, "In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain — the region that helps regulate mood — is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression."
Another way walking can alleviate depression is if you’re walking with a friend. One UC Berkeley study showed that 25% of Americans feel like they don’t have a single, close friend. But women who walk with their friends are 2.5 times less likely to feel lonely. Walking with friends is a positive social experience, during which we release oxytocin, a feel-good bonding hormone.
Walking and Physical Health
Walking regularly is particularly impactful for reducing your risk of breast cancer and colon cancer. Regarding breast cancer, exercise reduces estrogen levels, and research strongly suggests “that women who exercise regularly can expect a 20-30% reduction in the chance of getting breast cancer.” For colon cancer, just 30-40 minutes of brisk walking a day amounts to a 30-40% risk reduction.
Regular walking will also help to maintain a healthy weight and healthy vascular system, which prevents diabetes and heart disease.
Walking and Spiritual Journeys
Beyond mental and physical health, walking can have spiritual benefits. Walking pilgrimages can be found around the world in many religions and cultures.
For example, there’s the Australian Walkabout — the adolescent Aboriginal males’ rite of passage. Usually made between the ages of 10-16, the teenage boys follow paths in the wilderness for up to 6 months, walking as much as 1,000 miles. Their journey is a proof of their ability to survive in their native land, plus a journey of self-discovery.
Another famous walk is the Way of St. James, a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage from France to the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where the remains of St. James the Apostle are said to be enshrined.
Mount Kailash in Tibet is another holy pilgrimage site, especially for people of the Hindu, Jain, Bon, and Buddhist faiths. Pilgrims make a three-day clockwise walk around the mountain (which is so sacred it has never been climbed).
“The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey.” – Thomas Merton, "Mystics & Zen Masters," 1961
What is it about a walking pilgrimage that’s so spiritually beneficial? People go on pilgrimage to make reparation, to seek conversion, to step back from their life and reassess, to seek guidance, to learn more about themselves, or to push their physical limits.
Brett McKay, of the Art of Manliness, writes, “A pilgrimage takes our shared metaphor of life as a journey, in which a lone sojourner must struggle with courage and hope through the wilderness, and turns it into a concrete, bodily experience; it converts the abstract into a tangible path, with real goals and obstacles and pain. A pilgrimage can separate the traveler from the distractions of everyday life and act as a process of transformation and purification.”
So whether you have 15 minutes for a walk around the block or days for a pilgrimage, get walking and experience the life-changing benefits.
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