Walking makes us happier, healthier and can unlock the cognitive powers of the brain

woman walking in nature

We are hard wired for walking, but our modern life not only chronically stresses our body, it keeps us chronically sedentary and sitting still all day long makes us less open and agreeable, more depressed... and less able to use our grey matter!

As with our body… so with our brain

A meta study from 2018 which tracked activity levels and personality traits in over 50,000 participants found that people moving the least scored lower in positive traits such as openness, extroversion and agreeableness.

Data shows people who walk more also experience lower rates of depression. Dr Brendon Stubbs, post-doctoral research physiotherapist at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College, said:

“We found that higher levels of physical activity were protective from future depression in children, adults and older adults, across every continent and after taking into account other important factors such as body mass index, smoking and physical health conditions.”

Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara, in his latest book In Praise of Walking, holds that the brain has evolved to support movement, so if we stop moving, the brain won’t work as well.

Certain rhythms occur in the brain when we are walking rhythmically with others, neural activity which doesn’t happen when we are sitting, according to O’Mara.

One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.

One of these rhythms is the theta brainwave, a pulse or frequency of 7-8 hertz which assists learning and memory, and which raises when we move to aid spatial learning. We experience increased levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) which could be considered a molecular ‘fertiliser’ within the brain – it supports the structural remodelling and growth of synapses, as well as increasing resilience to ageing or damage from traumas or infections.

There is also vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) which encourages the growth of blood vessels carrying oxygen and nutrients to our brain cells.

Born to walk… but not on a treadmill!

We’re built to walk for miles a day, over all sorts of terrain, yet most of us don’t walk anywhere near as much as we need to. Walking is the probably the single most beneficial, yet most the under-rated form of movement! But how easy is it to avoid walking while there are cars, public transport, lifts and escalators everywhere we go?

“For the vast majority of our evolutionary history, humans had to exert ourselves – often quite strenuously – to get food. We naturally spent a lot of time outdoors in the sun, walking, hunting, gathering, and performing various other physically-oriented tasks. We had no concept of this as “exercise” or “working out”.  It was just life.”

- Chris Kresser

Movement is medicine

Time spent walking in nature is hugely beneficial to our health. ‘Green exercise’ (physical activity performed in nature – like walking, cycling, boating, conservation activities) because it’s been shown to have a very positive effect on several stress-related states like anger, confusion, depression and anxiety.

In Japan, Forest Bathing – visiting a forest for relaxation and recreation while breathing in volatile, antimicrobial wood essential oils – has now become a recognised relaxation and/or stress management activity. Its health benefits and sensory effects on sight, sound, smell and touch are being studied.

“If exercise came in pill form, we would only be too eager to take our keep-fit medicine. Movement is medicine, even small doses extend longevity and can prevent and treat disease. Movement truly is a polypill.”

– Darryl Edwards, The Fitness Explorer

So it must follow that lack of physical activity has a huge impact on our health.  Moving regularly not only protects us from disease, it prevents oxidative damage and inflammation – the primary mechanisms underlying heart disease and most modern, degenerative diseases.

Walking can be easily accommodated into our daily routines – it’s free and doesn’t require any special equipment apart from a pair of comfortable shoes. There’s no limbering up or warming down involved and the risk of injury is miniscule.

O’Mara suggests that for optimum benefit, “your speed should be consistently high over a reasonable distance – say consistently over 5km per hour, sustained for at least 30 minutes, at least four or five times a week.”

So, get outside and move it. Use it. Or you will lose it!

Further reading: Six Elements of Holistic Wellbeing


Izabella Natrins

After 30 years in the health space, as qualified holistic nutrition and lifestyle health expert and coach, digestive health & culinary medicine practitioner and a writer, a speaker, partner, a mum & grand-mum, I'm here to use my expertise and experience to help women shine at midlife and live the rest of their lives, the BEST of their lives in much better health. My Femergy@40 Nutrition and Lifestyle Health Coaching programmes empower, support and inspire busy, midlife women who are fighting fatigue, struggling with overwhelm, weight, sleep, energy and with niggling or with multiple diagnosed health issues. My book Once Upon a Cook - Food Wisdom, Better Living will make you want to change the way you eat, reclaim your kitchen and take back your health.

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