A walk in the park

Shoba Narayan on the benefits of taking long walks in the open, amid nature


Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Walking your way to health is a cliché. Everyone advocates it. In his book Thinking, Fast And Slow, Nobel-prize winner and economist Daniel Kahneman even talks about the speed of walking. A stroll at your normal pace, he says, is good for mulling over or coming up with new ideas. Power-walking at high speed, in contrast, requires effort and attention from brain and body, leaving less room for the serendipity of brain waves or brilliant ideas. 

In his book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, author Mason Currey has surveyed the work habits of 161 writers, artists, philosophers, scientists and composers. Walking every day was a common habit for many, along with working early in the morning and not having a cluttered desk. Charles Dickens walked for 3 hours every afternoon, as did Beethoven, who carried a sheet of paper with him in case a musical score struck him. Russian composer Tchaikovsky timed his walks to 2 hours exactly, not a minute more or less. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard came straight from his walk to his writing desk to feed his thoughts into words right away.

How many times have we told each other to get out for a walk? And how many of us busy professionals actually do it? I certainly don’t, usually because I have emails to answers and tasks to finish. Knowing that a walk may make us more productive might nudge us to put on our shoes and get out.

How you walk also makes a difference. For example, if you walk in the open, amid nature, for about 45 minutes, the benefits are far greater than if you walk on a treadmill for the same time. In a 2015 study, published in the journal Proceedings For The National Academy Of Sciences, a team of environmentalists and psychologists led by Stanford professor Gregory N. Bratman, randomly assigned two groups to take a 50-minute walk. One group walked in an urban environment, the other in a nature preserve. Right after the walk, the participants were given tests to study their mental states and cognitive functioning. And it turns out that they did well in mental function tests. “Compared to the urban walk, the nature walk resulted in affective benefits (decreased anxiety, rumination and negative affect, and preservation of positive affect) as well as cognitive benefits (increased working memory performance),” said the study.

Other research has shown that new cells are created when we take long walks. According to Frederick Gage of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in the US, our minds and bodies associate long walks with primitive migrations when we had to move from one place to the next. New brain cells are created during such long walks because we had to suss out the new environment and make sure that it was safe for inhabitation. In response, our brains created new cells to make sure we were prepared for dangers and exertions. Gage, by the way, was the co-discoverer of stem cells.

So the next time you hesitate to step out for a walk in the evening or you grab your cellphone to listen to music or podcasts while walking, think again. Multitasking, while walking, might make you believe that you are productive but it may blind you to the real benefit of walking in solitude amid nature for at least 45 minutes; such a stroll will invite the muse to sit on your shoulder and whisper ideas or solutions that may not have occurred to you during your busy day.

Shoba Narayan wants to get around to walking daily. Write to her with your tips, tricks and short cuts. She blogs at Shobanarayan.com, tweets at @shobanarayan and Instagrams at #shobanarayan.

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