We all know that exercise is beneficial for everyone, but not everyone is hyped up about dressing up in exercise attire and then sweating buckets. While intense exercises – like jogging or kickboxing – is great for our heart, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara (author of In Praise of Walking) believes that simply walking unlocks our brain’s cognitive powers better than anything.
Our sensory systems work at their best when they’re moving about in the world, and a 2018 study that tracked participants over a 20 year period has found that those who moved the least showed malign personality changes and scored lower in the positive traits like extraversion and agreeableness. There’s also substantial data to show that walkers have lower rates of depression too.
According to O’Mara, it’s due to the fact that activation that occurs across the whole of the brain during problem-solving becomes much greater, since walking demands lots of neural resources.
He cites an example of the humble sea squirt, which can often be found clinging onto rocks or boat hulls. In its larval stage, a sea squirt has a backbone, a single eye, and a basic brain to enable it to swim about hunting its prey. But when it becomes an adult, it attaches itself onto a rock and begins its vegetative existence – it’s so lazy that it actually eats its own redundant eye, brain, and spinal cord. Sitting at a desk all day could make you feel like a brainless polyp.
Conversely, certain species of jellyfish start off as brainless blobs on rocks and then start to develop complicated nerves – or brains – as they scour the sea for food.
The case for walking versus running
Some people prefer running to walking – it burns off more calories in a shorter amount of time. However, our theta brain waves crank up when we walk – not run – because we pick up information from the environment more easily. In order to walk and navigate, the brain activity flickers between big-picture states and task-focused work – this is the flicker that makes us more creative.
Walking is not just a great way to exercise your body and mind, it’s also much easier to do than preparing for a jog or a session at the gym – you don’t need to stretch or change into workout attire (just a pair of comfy shoes). Plus, if you’re new to exercise or aren’t able to run, walking can still help you get in shape, and you don’t get injuries – like stress fractures – commonly associated with running.
To get the maximum health benefits, O’Mara recommends that “speed should be consistently high over a reasonable distance – say consistently over 5km/h, sustained for at least 30 minutes, at least four or five times a week.”