Why We Need to Walk — Now More Than Ever

You’ve got to move more. It’s all too easy in these days at home to retreat to the couch. The truth is, we all know we need to move more, and we know we will feel the better for it. Movement is good for the brain and body, and we all know regular movement is one of the best ways of keeping fit and healthy. We evolved to walk long-ish distances every day (more than ten miles a day) every day of our lives from early childhood until very late in adulthood, and this walking acts as a self-repair mechanism for brain and body. Walking comes naturally to us, and is good for us in more ways than we know.

However, we have also evolved to conserve energy, to sit around, to eat and to store fat for the lean winters that used to be ahead of us. Now, though, food is abundantly available in the developed world all year around. We don’t need to walk long distances to forage for food.

Walking lots allows to explore our world, building, as we walk, the ‘cognitive maps’ our brains make to understand our world, as well as strengthening the connections of the brain areas involved in learning and memory.

Giuseppe Milo / CC BY
Walking Alone, Howth, Ireland
Source: Giuseppe Milo / CC BY

 

Modern work life can be so very bad for us. The modern world doesn’t help us to move at all. You might sit at your desk for seven or eight hours. And you might be sitting during your commute. This could add up to ten hours of indolence, five or six days a week. As few as three or four days without movement reduces muscle mass in the legs and replaces it with deposits of fat. You won’t notice this when you’re 30, but you will when you are 60, needing assistance to stand up out of your chair.

Sedentary living over decades slowly changes aspects of your personality for the worse: you will be less open to new experiences, you will become less extraverted, and you will be less agreeable. These personality factors are central to normal social life and social living. Sedentary living makes you more withdrawn, and inward looking. And, in turn, social isolation predisposes you to diseases of the brain, such as dementia.

Hitting the gym and pounding a treadmill for an hour after work doesn’t cut it either. Our bodies and brains are designed for, and need, lots of regular movement right throughout the course of the day. Walking is an easy solution our brains adore, and are built to profit from. Lots of regular, reliable, rhythmic, up-tempo walking throughout the day stimulates the production of molecules promoting brain health, and even brain resilience to the effects of chronic stress.

Five easy wins to walk more

Preliminaries: Use the walking app on your phone or smartwatch. Track your walking, comparing how much you walk to your age group. Aim to be consistently in the top ten percent for walking. Be slightly obsessed with tracking your walking steps, for we are hopeless at remembering how many steps we take day to day.

1.                  Get off your train or bus at least a stop or two early; do the same on the way home. This can add an easy extra two or three thousand steps per day, without you even noticing. If you drive, park as far as you reasonably can from work, and walk from there.

2.                  Walking before eating takes the edge off your appetite. Go to a café ten or fifteen minutes walk away: that’ll get you an extra two or three thousand steps, and you won’t notice it. Always keep a comfortable pair of walking shoes under your desk.

3.                  Set an alarm on your computer or your phone to prompt you to stand and walk about the office every twenty-five or thirty minutes. Try and use a standing desk, instead of a seated desk. Always take phone calls standing and walking: walking for an hour-long call can add four or five thousand steps, and you won’t notice this at all.

4.                  Before you start into a difficult and creatively demanding piece of work, prime yourself by writing down a few questions about what you have to do. Head off for a fifteen or twenty minute stroll, and bring a voice recorder or a notebook. You’ll find you generate perhaps twice as many ideas compared to sitting at your desk.

5.                  Try and find a partner-in-crime. We evolved as social walkers, making that long-ago journey out of Africa in small family and tribal groups. We are good at moving together, and we enjoy it, synchronizing our breathing, walking pace and conversation easily and swiftly.

And over the days and weeks, you’ll notice how much better you feel, and how your productivity has improved.

I explore these and many related topics in my new book, ‘In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration‘ (WW Norton: 2020).

Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist

4 thoughts on “Why We Need to Walk — Now More Than Ever

  1. hello prof. recently had the pleasure of reading your wonderful book.
    Going to start getting my steps in. I was wondering which walking app you use? im a bit curious to see where i stand on this walking thing. thanks.

    1. I use the Samsung Health app on my phone, which I jam in a pocket – I don’t bother with a smart watch b/c I leave my watch off a lot. I like the look of these: https://fibion.com/ b/c they fit in a pocket/bag etc easily also. Thanks for the kind words on the book! I am so glad you enjoyed it!

    1. Lots of different types. But have had most consistently best experiences with Merrill’s (boots and shoes), but also have a pair of heavy walking shoes by Columbia that I really like too. Otherwise, very variable experiences. I tend to trash shoes pretty quickly, unfortunately (just binned a pair of Puma’s, for example!).

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