Why going for a walk can cure (almost) anything

Clinical studies and experiments have shown that walking has physical and mental benefits

People walking by Cauce del Río in Valencia, Spain
A group of people walking in Valencia, Spain.Mònica Torres

Paradoxically, in the hyperactive 21st century, going for a meandering walk is starting to get good press. When asked about the benefits of wandering aimlessly, a neuroscientist spends 20 minutes enumerating the reasons to walk for 20 to 30 minutes every day. “There are two kinds of walking: doing it in familiar places and in new places. If you walk in places you already know, the first positive effects are cardiovascular activation: if you move your legs, you move your heart. As you walk, you turn your head: your field of vision changes and you encounter visual stimuli to the right and to the left. In this way, both cerebral hemispheres are activated. The walk makes them communicate with each other. That is a magnificent exercise, because in the brain, one hemisphere tends to dominate the other,” says doctor Bruno Ribeiro, professor in the Human Anatomy and Psychobiology department of the University of Murcia, Spain.

Ribeiro explains that if the walker makes a conscious effort to “be in the here and now,” walking becomes a meditative act. “To do so, you have to leave behind thoughts about the past and future and concentrate on the present. It’s very difficult, but if it is achieved, the walk will have all the benefits of meditation. Sometimes, people who struggle with classic meditation can achieve it during a walk.”

Walking through unknown landscapes, Ribeiro explains, can have even more benefits. Our brains release dopamine, “a neurotransmitter that marks novelty in the brain and allows us to identify danger or pay attention. A good daily dose of dopamine will increase another neurotransmitter, serotonin, which is responsible for our mood. The walk helps to keep both neurotransmitters at high levels.”

The French poet Charles Baudelaire described flâneurs — those romantic Parisian walkers — as “dilettante observers of urban life.” They were initially considered useless and lazy men who contributed little to society and wasted their time. In 1872, the Larousse Great Universal Dictionary of the 19th century described them ambivalently as equally restless and idle. But around that same time, advocates of the art of strolling also began to appear. Writer and literary critic Charles A. Sainte Beeuve wrote that flânerie was “the opposite of doing nothing.” And Balzac called wandering “gastronomy for the eyes.”

The benefits of walking

What do we know today about the benefits of walking? Clinical studies and experiments have demonstrated that the walker’s mental movement fosters creativity. As walking does not require conscious effort, it allows the mind to take in new images and create new associations. It is the perfect state for innovation. Two professors at Stanford University, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, showed as much in a series of 2014 studies that measured how walking affected creativity. In the four experiments, 176 students completed creative thinking tasks while seated, walking on a treadmill or walking around the campus. In one of the experiments, they had to find unusual uses of daily objects, like a button or a tire. The researchers found that when the students walked, they came up with up to six times more uses for those objects than when they did the activity while seated. However, for tasks that required a single, precise answer, more errors occurred when the group was walking. The researchers concluded that letting the mind wander in a sea of thoughts was good for creating, but not for finding a unique solution to a problem.

Where we walk also matters. Strolling through a forest is not the same as doing so in a city. A study led by professor Marc Berman at the University of South Carolina showed that students who walked through a grove of trees performed better on a memory test than those who walked through the city. There is a small, but consistent, selection of studies that suggest that walking through green spaces can reset the mental resources that are quickly drained by man-made urban environments. A corner full of people, with traffic noise, lights and billboards, consumes our attention quickly. During a walk through nature, in an environment without significant stimuli, the mind can rest.

People who struggle with forgetfulness can also improve their memories with a short, brisk walk. According to Rong Zhang, neurology professor at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern in Dallas, to improve blood flow in the brain, we should increase our cardiac rhythm during the walk, to the point that we have difficulty breathing and maintaining a conversation. In his study, a group of middle-aged and elderly people improved their memory and cognitive function with a half-hour walk five days a week. A year later, a follow-up study corroborated those results. Both studies suggest that it is necessary to maintain those levels of activity for at least a year to notice improvements in memory and cognition.

And if you tend to get trapped in loops of ruminative thinking, walking is also for you. A brief walk can help you break the loop. In 2020, a study published in The Journal of Environmental Psychology demonstrated that walking for 30 minutes was enough to break an obsessive spiral of negative thought. “The walk interrupts the cycle and takes us out of the thought loop, either because the landscape redirects our attention or because physical exercise demands certain concentration,” the authors wrote.

To achieve cardiovascular benefits and protection against some tumors and chronic diseases, the walks do not need to be long. According to results published recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 75 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, half of the World Health Organization’s recommendation, can prevent one in every 10 premature deaths. After reviewing 196 studies with 30 million people, researchers found that, compared to doing nothing, moderate exercise reduced by 30% the probability of a premature death by any cause, 29% the probability of death by cardiovascular diseases and 15% the probability of cancer deaths.

Another study in Spain concluded that 50 minutes of walking a week reduces mortality by 30%. For people who have been sedentary for years, even small increments of physical activity can have benefits. Even if they cannot reach the recommended 150 minutes, walking at a good pace for 50 minutes a week could begin to improve their health. There is no minimum threshold.

The French philosopher Frédéric Gros, author of A Philosophy of Walking, believes that getting up and walking is necessary to think well. In his book, he recounts the walks of great thinkers like Nietzsche, Rousseau and Montaigne. It is not that we don’t think as well when we are inactive, but we tend to have static ideas. Gross recommends taking notes while walking, whether in a notebook or on a phone, because the ideas we have while walking are good, he says, but fragile and light, easy to forget. That would be a shame, because, as Nietzsche says, “it is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.”

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