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How to walk more

Walking acts as a self-repair mechanism for the brain and body.

Shane O'Mara
Neuroscientist & Author
May 04, 2020
4 min read

We are exceptional long-distance walkers; our bodies are engineered to walk around 10 miles a day - day in, day out. But, we are also evolved to rest and conserve energy, especially after food gathering and eating. The modern world facilitates the second - we have food, and we can rest; but it inhibits the first - we need to walk, lots.

Finding the balance in modern life is the problem. We don’t need to walk long distances to forage for food, or be concerned about storing fat for lean winters ahead of us.

Walking acts as a self-repair mechanism for the brain & body.

It allows us to explore––building ‘cognitive maps’ as we walk to understand our world, as well as strengthening the connections of the brain areas involved in learning and memory.

Modern life doesn’t help us to move at all. You might sit at your desk for seven or eight hours, and also be sitting during your commute. This could add up to ten hours of inactivity, five or six days a week.

Scary statistic alert: as few as three or four days without movement reduces muscle mass in the legs and replaces it with deposits of fat. You won’t notice this when you’re 30, but you will when you are 60, when you may need assistance to stand up out of your chair.

Sedentary living over decades slowly changes aspects of your personality for the worse: you will be less open to new experiences, you will become less extroverted, and you will be less agreeable. These personality factors are central to normal social life and social living. Sedentary living makes you more withdrawn, and inward looking. And, in turn, social isolation predisposes you to diseases of the brain, such as dementia.

Hitting the gym and pounding a treadmill for an hour after work doesn’t cut it either. Our bodies and brains are designed for, and need, lots of regular movement throughout the course of the day. Walking is an easy solution our brains adore, and are built to profit from. Lots of regular, reliable, rhythmic, up-tempo walking throughout the day stimulates the production of molecules promoting brain health, and even brain resilience to the effects of chronic stress.

Five easy ways to walk more

Top Tip: Use the walking app on your phone or smartwatch to track your steps every day. Aim to be consistently in the top ten percent for walking in your age group (roughly 8-9K is average for ages 25-45).

  1. Get off your train or bus a stop or two early; do the same on the way home. This can add an easy two or three thousand extra steps per day, without you even noticing. If you drive, park as far as you reasonably can from work, and walk from there.

  2. Go to a café ten or fifteen minutes walk away to take the edge off your appetite, and give you an extra two or three thousand steps in the process. Keep a comfortable pair of walking shoes under your desk, so you don’t have any excuse!

  3. During your work day, set an alarm to prompt you to stand and walk around the office every twenty-five or thirty minutes. You can also switch to taking standing and walking phone calls-walking for an hour-long call can add four or five thousand steps, that won’t feel like any extra effort.

  4. Before you start into a difficult and creatively demanding piece of work, head off for a fifteen or twenty minute stroll, and bring a voice recorder or a notebook to prime yourself for what you have to do. You’ll find you generate perhaps twice as many ideas compared to sitting at your desk.

  5. Try and find a partner-in-crime. We evolved as social walkers, making that long-ago journey out of Africa in small family and tribal groups. We are good at moving together, and we enjoy it, synchronising our breathing, walking pace and conversation easily and swiftly.

And over the days and weeks, you’ll notice how much better you feel, and how your productivity has improved.

Who is Shane O'Mara?

Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College, Dublin, and author of the recently-published ‘In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk, and Why it’s Good for Us

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