In a world where health advice changes like the weather, there’s one prescription you can rely on: walking. I’ve quit trying to keep track of which foods are good and which are bad (they keep trading places), and instead just try to walk as much as I can.
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I’ve sung the virtues of walking before. It’s easy and involves no learning curve. You can walk indoors or out, as the weather dictates. It’s free of charge and requires no expensive equipment apart from a good pair of shoes. It won’t wreck your joints (and can even help them). You can do it on your own or with others, and it’s easy to stick with.
Research studies support the healthfulness of walking. A brisk daily walk helps you lose weight or stay fit, of course, but that’s only the beginning. A Harvard study showed that walking just 30 minutes a day can cut the risk of heart disease by as much as 40 percent. Duke University found walking to be as effective as antidepressants at relieving symptoms of major depression. The “Archives of Internal Medicine” has linked walking to a decreased risk of memory loss and other mental declines of aging.
As if that’s not enough, the most recent study confirms what I’ve always noticed about walking: It supercharges your brain’s activity. In an August 2012 column, I called my morning walk my “brain breakfast” because “it fuels creativity — it’s when I get new ideas and solve problems.” Now research published in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology” confirms that people actually do generate more creative ideas when they walk than when they sit.
Lead author Marily Oppezzo, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, recruited 176 subjects and tasked them with verbal tests as they sat at a desk, then walked on a treadmill. Fully 81 percent of the participants improved their creative output when walking.
Why does this happen? Obviously, walking increases the amount of oxygen reaching the brain (as well as all other body parts). Some psychologists speculate that walking may increase arousal in the brain, or interfere with the brain’s ability to filter thoughts, thus opening it up to more wide-ranging creativity.
Interestingly, the study subjects did slightly worse while walking on one mental task: solving problems with a single answer. Presumably, because that kind of brainwork requires focused concentration, those sitting quietly had the edge. But for free-flowing, creative thought and idea generation, walking was the way to go.
In part of the experiment, one group of subjects sat during two different sets of the tests, another group walked during both sets, and a third walked for one set and sat for the other. Those who walked and then sat came up with fewer creative ideas during their sitting set, but still did better than the participants who sat for both sets of tests.
“There was a residual effect,” reported Oppezzo, adding that “walking before a meeting that requires innovation may still be nearly as useful as walking during the meeting.”
Another part of the experiment compared the results of subjects walking outside or on a treadmill inside, with those of subjects sitting inside or being pushed in a wheelchair outside. Again, walking — whether indoors or out, led to the best results.
“While being outdoors has many cognitive benefits,” Oppezzo observed, “walking appears to have a very specific benefit of improving creativity.”
Oppezzo and her fellow researcher, Stanford University psychology professor Daniel Schwartz, say more research is needed to discover exactly how walking fires the imagination. In the meantime, though, the fact that it does is just one more reason in a very long list to shoehorn more walking into your day.
How to do that? I like to fit little “stealth walks” in here and there, by tacking a minute or three of walking onto routine tasks, such as feeding the animals or doing the laundry. If I still worked in an office, I’d make a short walk part of my regular breaks and lunchtimes. The key is to pick things you do every day (go out for the mail? head to a coffee shop for a break?) and attach the bit of extra walking to that, so it becomes routine, too.
I much prefer walking outdoors, but I’ve found that a treadmill inside is awfully nice during triple-digit summer weather. (We bought ours on the cheap at a used-sporting-goods store.)
Pedometers prompt those who wear them to walk more. It’s fun to see how you can increase your total number of steps from day to day — and even more fun to compete with a friend or family member.
The tireless walker Henry David Thoreau called an early-morning walk “a blessing for the whole day.”
And so it is — a blessing, a creative muse, a mood-booster, a health tonic. As your sneakers might say, just do it.
Jennifer Forsberg Meyer, a biweekly columnist with the Mountain Democrat, would love to hear your walking stories. Leave a comment for her online, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.