Over the past few years a growing body of knowledge has developed around the physical benefits of walking. It strengthens our hearts and builds lung capacity; it tones muscles and increases flexibility; it soothes aching joints and moderates our blood pressure.
But in the ensuing campaign to achieve 10,000 steps a day something equally important has been overshadowed and that’s how walking is hugely beneficial for our mental health. Over the past five years I’ve been researching the link between our simplest locomotion and our healthiest states of mind and have discovered some life-altering connections.
Walking does many wonderful things for mental health.Credit:Blazej Lyjak
Walking strengthens your memory
Walking increases the flow of neurotropins in the brain (neurotropins are a family of proteins involved in the construction and maintenance of the cellular network through which thought takes place). Brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is the best known of these proteins and when we walk BDNF flow increases in the hippocampus – the area of the brain connected with memory and pattern recognition. By walking we are actually enhancing the region of the brain most associated with memory.
Walking promotes creativity
A 2014 study conducted by Stanford University proved that while walking and for some time after exercise subjects were more creative (as measured using standardised creativity tests). So, what’s going on?
The biggest contributor to this amplified innovative thinking could have been the research participants attainment of a flow state. Flow – also known as the zone or transient hypofrontality – is a state of mind where we lose our sense of self. For creative thinking this is essential because human beings tend to approach problem solving in the same way over and over again, this patterning becomes part of our individual personalities, so to break out of those repeated patterns we need to remove our sense of self.
Flow – also known as the zone or transient hypofrontality – is a state of mind where we lose our sense of self.
Walking does this by decreasing the activity of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain most associated with our feeling of individuality, thus letting us view challenges from a non-self-based perspective.
Walking reduces stress
Clinical psychologist and neuroscientist Stan Rodski has said, "If I were to summarise all of my learning over forty-odd years, I’d say that most people’s stress starts with the complaint: I don’t have enough time."
Walking reduces stress by changing our relationship with time in three ways; firstly, it increases the flow in the brain of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, anandamine and norepinephrine and these help create a more open and spacious mindset.
Secondly, walking lowers our brain wave frequency from the beta region to the high theta range – the theta wave between 5 to 10 Hz is the frequency we enter when we are meditating. Again, this encourages an expansive mindset.
Thirdly, when we drop into the flow state, we lose our sense of time. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, the world leader in flow research, noted through over 8,000 interviews with highly successful people that a great many of them observed that when they entered flow they lost their sense of self – but also their sense of time. This is again related to the reduced activity of the prefrontal cortex.
Walking increases confidence
Walking is what we’re made to do. For four million years humans have been wandering this planet on two legs and in that time our bodies and minds have evolved around this locomotion. Thinking on our feet is code for thinking creatively.
Human beings are bipedal problem solvers and when we walk, we come back into touch with who we are as a species. Confidence grows when you understand yourself; when we walk we are physically reminded of what it is to be human.
Walking builds resilience
Resilience combines the ability to imagine new ways of overcoming life’s unending challenges with the capacity of not giving up in the face of those difficulties. Walking, as I’ve already noted, promotes creativity, it generates a fresh, open and spacious mindset that lets us objectively approach everyday problems.
But walking is also an embodied metaphor for the persistence and tenacity that human beings have excelled at in our four-million-year journey to becoming the world’s most evolutionarily advanced species. The human story is built around the journey narrative, the never-ending cycle of overcoming challenges and incorporating that wisdom into our lives. Walking physically reconnects us with humanity’s greatest story and reminds us that nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without learning from failure and revelling in triumph over and over again – one step at a time.
If a pharmaceutical company manufactured a drug that mimicked all of walking’s incredible psychological benefits it would be a multi-billion-dollar invention; fortunately, we can all tap into walking’s plethora of gifts by simply stepping out our front door and putting one foot in front of the other.
Jono Lineen is the author of Perfect Motion – How walking makes us wiser (Penguin Books) out now.
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