8 reasons why we should all walk more
Walking. Most of us do it, but very few of us do it enough.
In the Don’t Tell Me the Score podcast, neuroscientist Prof Shane O’Mara tells Simon Mundie how walking benefits our muscles and posture, helps to protect and repair organs, aids digestion and can even turn back the aging of our brains.
As well as encouraging us to think more creatively, walking also helps our mood to improve and our stress levels to fall. Here are eight compelling reasons why it’s time to up the daily step count.
Shane O’Mara interview
1. Walking makes the brain more resilient
Inactivity means less muscle volume and less muscle strength in our bodies. But on top of that, perhaps surprisingly, our brain also starts to wither. When we walk, molecules produced in our muscle leak into our grey matter and facilitate resilience in the brain. One particular molecule helps the vasculature (blood network) in our brain to grow to support our brain cells. Walking actually makes us brainier!
Getting out for a walk is the very best way of engaging in problem solving.
2. Walking keeps our heart healthy
Walking is incredibly beneficial for heart health. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors typically walked between 15 and 17 miles a day, five or six days a week. “What you see in those populations is heart health equivalents that are absolutely remarkable,” says Shane.
There’s a tribe in the South American jungle, the Tsimane, where the average 80-year-old has the heart health of a 50-year-old American. And that’s largely because they engage in low level activity all day long.
3. Walking aids digestion
Walking is also a friend to the gut. “The passage of food is facilitated when people engage in lots of walking,” says Shane. “Rather than taking your constipation pill, you might find that actually going for a good walk is a much better, more secure route to getting enduring relief!”
4. Walking helps us to problem-solve
Walking has been scientifically proven to increase our creativity and help us to tackle problems. “When you’re thinking something through, getting up and walking around is actually a much better way for a lot of problems than sitting down feeling very frustrated,” says the neuroscientist.
“We know from many of the great writers and philosophers and mathematicians that getting out for a walk is the very best way of engaging in problem solving.” For example, the novelist Stephen King walks a lot and regularly. And philosopher and writer Bertrand Russell was renowned for organising his thoughts on a piece of paper, going out for a stroll, and then producing a flawless piece of prose on his return.
5. Walking can help to prevent depression
There may well be a sedentary component to the onset of depression, says Shane. A recent study shows that “rates of depression fall, and the likelihood of succumbing to depression fall, for every group above the most inactive,” says the neuroscientist. In other words, the more active the better.
Sedentary people become less open to experience, less extroverted, and also become more neurotic.
There’s an argument that some types of major depressive disorder arise as a result of inflammatory factors circulating in the blood. “If you engage in lots and lots of walking, inflammatory factors in the blood fall, and fall really dramatically,” says Shane. In some cases, lots of walking could act almost like a vaccine, reducing the chances of depression dramatically.
6. Walking helps us be more open, more extroverted, and less neurotic
There’s a widely supported theory that each of us has a personality that reflects five different factors. These factors (helpfully making up the acronym OCEAN) are openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
If you give multiple personality tests to someone with a sedentary lifestyle, you find that they become less open to experience over time, they become less extroverted, and they also become more neurotic, says Shane.
Conversely, if you track someone who is active, they show little to none of the personality changes that are evident in someone who is sedentary. They are also much less likely to succumb to the diseases that come with an inactive lifestyle.
7. Walking is better for our metabolism than going to the gym
Engaging in low-level activity across the course of the day is better for regulating your metabolism than engaging small bits of intense but infrequent activity.
People tend to overestimate the benefits of going to the gym and pounding out an hour on the treadmill when they’ve been inactive for the rest of the day, says Shane. In fact, he says this behaviour can lead to “exercise induced inactivity. Basically, your body is saying you’ve gone and hunted, you’ve got the wildebeest, you’ve killed it, you’re sitting down, you can eat. And your metabolic rate actually drops.”
“We’re built for regular rhythmic movement,” so sitting around all day, engaging in a serious bout of activity, and then heading back to the couch is “not speaking to how we evolved as humans.”
8. Walking can improve our posture
For many of us, the working day involves going from sitting in our car, to sitting at our desk, to sitting on the sofa. This can result in a bad posture and back problems. “We’re not designed to just slump in one position all day long – it’s going to be bad for you,” says Shane. Getting up and walking around regularly can help prevent a bad back and improve our posture.
Six tips for how to walk more during the day
1. Set an alarm on your computer or phone to go off every 25 minutes, and then get up and go for a five-minute walk. “You’re more effective when you work in short bursts and you take a bit of movement between the short bursts of activity,” says Shane.
2. There are plenty of standing and walking desks on the market. Ditch the old desk and try walking whilst working.
3. Meetings don’t have to mean sitting down. Try suggesting that everyone stands up instead. You can even try walking and talking!
4. Take a phone call standing up, and walk around when you’re on the call.
5. Using the step counter on your smartphone, try to do 5,000 steps more than you’re currently doing. Aim for nine or ten thousand steps distributed throughout the day.
6. Take the stairs instead of the lift.