This week I was listening to Dr Ragan Chatterjee Podcast, Feel Better Live More. On one of the episodes he had neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin. Shane is also the author of a book called, In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk And Why It’s Good For Us. It’s fair to say this man loves to walk and he has some very good reasons for doing so.
Shane, who is 53, aims to clock 15,000 to 17,000 steps each day on his pedometer and feels that we should all have a target to hit. For me 10,000 steps is a good and challenging starting point for many of us.
Simple stepping out the door and going for regular walks can help you towards your healthy, happy active lifestyle. But it goes much deeper than that.
O’Mara says, “Our sensory systems work at their best when they’re moving about the world… getting people to engage in physical activity before they engage in a creative act is very powerful.” This isn’t just a statement to say that we feel good after a walk but there is scientific evidence that the brain’s creative activity increases after we perform physical activity such as walking for 10 minutes.
Personally I have been putting this to the test by going for a walk before I need to sit down and concentrate on a task, for example writing a weekly article.
Think of it as your creative spark. If you are daunted by a task that’s ahead of you or hit a plateau on that project you have been working on, then get up and move.
O’Mara notes, “Immobility over long periods, slows brain activity down, but the minute we stand up, we become cognitively mobile.” A simple walk, especially outside away from all distractions can get your creative juices flowing once again. If it doesn’t ignite you straight away at least you’ll be adding to your daily step count.
O’Mara’s combined interest of walking and as a professor of experimental brain research: stress, depression and anxiety; and learning, memory and cognition has helped prove how much of a superpower walking really is.
“It turns out that the brain systems that support learning, memory and cognition are the same ones that are very badly affected by stress and depression,” he says.
“And by a quirk of evolution, these brain systems also support functions such as cognitive mapping,” by which he means our internal GPS system.
O’Mara goes on to explain that there are even more positive effects on the body and mind when we walk together. It’s called walking rhythmically together.
He continues, “There are all sorts of rhythms happening in the brain as a result of engaging in that kind of activity, and they’re absent when you’re sitting. One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.”
All this walking can make you even more resilient to ageing and damage caused by trauma or infection as essential brain-nourishing molecules are produced by aerobically demanding activity.
He also brought up an interesting point that we don’t count walking as a proper exercise. He suggests – I would agree – that we need to be more generally active over the course of the day than we are, and going to the gym for an hour doesn’t really make up for our inactivity throughout the day. He by no means is saying that your gym session is a waste of time but if we spread our activity throughout the day then the gym session could even be reduced in duration and intensity.
For the majority of us who don’t have athletic performance-related goals, then what we are really trying to do is work off calories. The more calories we consume the more calories we have to burn, the more we move throughout the day the more energy we burn and we also have a positive effect on our brain and mood health.
Even if you are in an office-based job there are ways you can be more active throughout the day.
Setting an alarm on your phone to get up every 30 minutes to move; bring a comfy pair of shoes and rain-jacket to work and walk during your breaks. Take the stairs. Park your car further away from the building. After or before work go for a walk, to help finish or start your day.
Adding two or three of these into your daily routine will have a massive effect on your body, mind and productivity.
And finally get a step counter – better using a watch rather than your phone. The reason for this, is sometimes we need to get away from our phones and screens and enjoy our walk without any distractions.
If you think you’re too old to start walking, then I’ll leave you with a quote from the professor, “You get old when you stop walking. You don’t stop walking because you get old.”