Anyone seeking high-tech ways to work out from home during the pandemic is in luck. From virtual spin classes with suitably hyperactive instructors to all-in-one smart gyms to interactive mirrors that even the Jetsons couldn’t have envisaged, you can burn calories and dollars in equal measure this holiday season. Yet for all the hype and hoopla about the latest gadgets and gizmos, there’s an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that a simpler form of exercise might be the best for your body and mind. Here are five reasons to start including a walk in your daily routine.
1) Make Creative Connections
While walking is often recommended to improve physical health, it also has the potential to give you a brain boost as well. A Stanford University study concluded that walking improves creativity by up to 61 percent, and that doing so outside prompted participants to come up with their most original ideas. So it looks like philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche – who scribbled in notebooks as he took his daily constitutional – was on to something when he said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
How does your body moving along a trail positively impact your brain? Researchers at New Mexico Highlands University found that the impact of feet on the ground creates pressure waves in arteries, prompting increased blood flow to the head. There might also be some psychological factors at play. In his book The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler identifies novelty – which the ever-changing natural world presents – as one of the triggers for getting into a flow state. “You can walk yourself into a low-grade flow state,” he writes. “If you’re doing something creative and you didn’t get into flow and it was frustrating, this is a way to reset and start over.”
2) Stay Healthy
It’d be easy to assume that 10,000 steps a day became a widely accepted RDA for movement with the current crop of fitness trackers. But in fact, this metric’s origins go all the way back to 1965, when Dr. Yoshiro Hatano helped a Japanese company create a pedometer called Manpo-kei, which means “10,000 steps meter.” Its widespread adoption spawned the creation of hundreds of walking clubs across the country, which preceded the 70s and 80s jogging boom in the West.
While the number of steps was a somewhat arbitrary part of Yamesa’s marketing strategy, it quickly became the norm as a fitness baseline. In the several decades since, many researchers have investigated whether 10,000 steps a day is optimal for overall health, or if you need to take less or more. Harvard University epidemiology professor I-Min Lee found that when women added as few as 2,000 steps per day, their health outcomes improved. Those who took 4,400 steps daily had a 41 percent reduction in all-cause mortality, a figure that continued to improve up to about 7,500. On days that you’re stuck at your desk, that equates to a long walk of around an hour and a half. But if you’re already pretty active, adding in a 20 to 45-minute stroll should do the trick.
When the American Cancer Society studied the health of 140,000 people over several years, they discovered that those who walked for six hours or more per week had lower rates of cancer, respiratory illness, and cardiovascular disease. If you can’t commit that much time you might still be in luck, as just two hours a week total lowered the risk of these three common health complaints.
3) Elevate Your Mood
Walking in a natural setting doesn’t merely keep you healthy – it might also help you be happier. A study published in Landscape and Urban Planning compared the emotional state of students who walked across a tree-lined section of their campus to those who strode down a busy city street with no greenery. The former reported being more content and attentive than the latter and were also less likely to dwell on their problems. Brain scans suggest that this might be because walking in nature calmed the prefrontal cortex.
In a 2016 study released in the journal Emotion, researchers conducted three experiments and found as little as a 12-minute walk resulted in positive mood changes. University of Mississippi researchers found that walking for just 10 minutes reduced feelings of anger, dejection, and depression in young adults. Even if you don’t have access to wilderness, walking can still improve your psycho-emotional wellbeing. A paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that walking in urban green space had mood-enhancing effects.
4) Improve Memory
Another way that walking can benefit your mind is by improving your ability to store and recall information. A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper found that while yoga and strength training also boosted cognition, walking had the biggest effect on the hippocampus, causing it to grow by two percent. This part of your brain is responsible for memory formation and retrieval. The researchers recommend walking for 40 minutes three times a week, which they also discovered led to the reversal of two years of age-related decline.
This is just one of many studies that have found a correlation between regular walking and memory. If weather or COVID-19 restrictions prevent you from getting outside for a few days, hitting the treadmill might be a good idea, particularly if you do it prior to performing some kind of brain work. Swedish scientists found that walking indoors before a memory test improved young adults’ performance.
5) Increase Productivity
On your busiest days, it might be tempting to disregard walking as a waste of time. Yet the science suggests that the opposite is true: walking will actually make you more productive. A research duo tried experimenting with different work breaks and found that following an hour of cognitive work with five minutes of physical activity like walking led to participants reporting a three-fold increase in energy immediately afterward. An hour later, they had 200 percent more vigor than before the break.
A midday walk might enable you get more done by helping you purge the frustrations that can build up during a hectic morning so that you can refocus in the afternoon. A Finnish study tracked office workers before, during, and after 15-minute lunchtime walks in a nearby park. They were significantly less stressed after stretching their legs, which the study’s author said suggests that a daily walk, “may assist employees in replenishing the resources needed to perform well on the job during the working day.” A report by the think tank RAND Europe and health insurance group Vitality estimated that if employers encouraged their staff members to add an extra 15 minutes of walking, the global economy would get a $100 billion boost.