We may balk at the simplicity of walking and therefore dismiss its validity entirely, yet putting one foot in front of the other is now a scientifically proven route to more joy and happiness in our lives.
Even doctors and neuroscientists are in on the secret, which really shouldn’t be a secret at all. In a new book just published, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara believes people should be prescribed walking rather than anti-depression pills.
It’s about time.
Walking isn’t just good for our heart and lungs, it’s also good for our emotional health, too. The book, In Praise of Walking, is the result of extensive research O’Mara has made into the benefits of regular walking (i.e. every day), which include improved cognition and mood, as well as improved memory and problem-solving functions. He also found that it provides relief from depression and anxiety.
I’ve spoken about the huge benefits of shinrin-yoku before – it’s the ancient practice of mindfully walking in the woods (loved by the Duchess of Cambridge, amongst many others). And it’s this, plus new research undertaken by scientists such as O’Mara, that is leading GP’s to prescribing walking instead of Prozac. Dubbed ecotherapy (which I rather like), it’s free, simple and you can do it almost everywhere. If you’re in a city, simply allow more time to get to your destination by walking. You need nothing other than reasonable footwear and you’re off.
It’s particularly important advice for those working at desks for long periods of time. When we’re sat for too long, our brain activity slows down. Yet the minute we stand up, we’re cognitively mobile, says O’Mara. What this means is that our electrical brain rhythms spring into life, blood flow increases through the brain and body, our breathing changes (for the better) and we become more alert.
In one experiment, O’Mara compared the creativity of a group of outdoor walkers to a group of indoor sitters by asking them all to come up with as many uses as they could for a set of reading glasses. The results were incredible, showing that the first group were consistently more imaginative. That’s why, when we run our Street Wisdom sessions, participants often say they have their best ideas when out walking.
Whilst, for most of us, walking is unconscious, it hasn’t always been so for me. Having to learn how to walk all over again following a complex knee operation last year, I concur with O’Mara that walking is actually a very complex task. So complex that scientists are still only beginning to understand what happens to the brain in motion. The act of standing, stabilising our spine, putting one foot in front of the other, engaging the right special awareness, may all come naturally to most adults, but it wasn’t always the case. Watch any baby and you’ll understand. Learning to walk is a significant milestone in their progress and brain development. They learn through their mistakes – by falling and picking themselves up again. It’s quite fascinating to watch and acts as a reminder of how precious an activity walking really is. We may often eat and drink whilst walking, too, or have a chat, which adds even more layers of complexity. Something we just take for granted.
Shane O’Mara’s book is called In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good For Us
We’ve designed a brand new retreat with B-Corp adventure company TYF in Wales, to teach teams of 8 or more people how to reconnect with themselves and the land (through walking and many other activities). Read more about it and book for your team here: https://thelifeadventure.co/workshop/good-for-life/?r_to=7950
You can also read a story about learning to walk again here.