‘It’s a superpower’: how walking makes us healthier, happier and brainier

Sitting at a desk all day, it’s easy to start feeling like a brainless polyp, whereas walking and talking, as we are this morning, while admiring the Great Sugar Loaf mountain rising beyond the city and a Huguenot cemetery formed in 1693, our minds are fizzing. “Our sensory systems work at their best when they’re moving about the world,” says O’Mara. He cites a 2018 study that tracked participants’ activity levels and personality traits over 20 years, and found that those who moved the least showed malign personality changes, scoring lower in the positive traits: openness, extraversion and agreeableness. There is substantial data showing that walkers have lower rates of depression, too. And we know, says O’Mara, “from the scientific literature, that getting people to engage in physical activity before they engage in a creative act is very powerful. My notion – and we need to test this – is that the activation that occurs across the whole of the brain during problem-solving becomes much greater almost as an accident of walking demanding lots of neural resources.” …

Some people, I point out, don’t think walking counts as proper exercise. “This is a terrible mistake,” he says. “What we need to be is much more generally active over the course of the day than we are.” And often, an hour at the gym doesn’t cut it. “What you see if you get people to wear activity monitors is that because they engage in an hour of really intense activity, they engage in much less activity afterwards.”

But you don’t get the endorphin high from walking, I say. “The same hit you get from running is what you’d get from taking morphine? We simply don’t know that’s true,” he says. “People who study this area don’t go on about endorphins and there may be a reason for that.” Not that he is opposed to vigorous exercise, but walking is much more accessible and easily woven into everyday life: “You don’t need to bring anything other than comfy shoes and a rain jacket. You don’t have to engage in lots of preparation; stretching, warm-up, warm-down …” O’Mara gets off his commuter train a stop early so that he can clock up more steps on his pedometer. To get the maximum health benefits, he 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.”

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