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Walking: nature’s brain booster

We’re always telling ourselves to get off the couch, and many of us know walking is good for the heart.

Walking stimulates the brain as well as the leg muscles, elevating mood, sharpening memory, and stimulating creativity. The ancient Greek philosopher and teacher Aristotle believed that walking helped thinking. So he taught while walking, with his students following him through the cloisters of his Athens-based school.  Almost two and half centuries later, the nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche maintained that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”. Composer Ludwig van Beethoven walked every afternoon, always carrying a pen and music paper so he could write down the melodies that floated into his consciousness as he strode along.

But is it the physical act of putting one foot in front of the other that triggers the creative magic? Or might the beauty of nature also play a role?

In 2014, two researchers from Stanford University, in the US state of Connecticut, found that it was the act of walking itself, regardless of the environment where it took place, that set off creative thinking.

The researchers gave 176 people a range of tests used to assess creative thinking, administering them as their subjects sat indoors and walked on a treadmill facing a blank wall. Participants in the experiment were also tested outdoors on the beautiful tree-lined campus, where they either sat, walked, or were pushed in a wheelchair.

Most people were more creative while they were walking, the study found. In fact, when participants were tested as they walked indoors, their creative output was an average of 60 percent higher than when they were sitting.

Other studies have shown that walking can work as an anti-depressant, benefit memory, and improve brain “connectivity”, needed for planning, prioritising and multitasking.

In 2016 researchers from the psychology department of Chicago’s St Xavier University concluded that a mere twelve minutes of walking may be enough to boost mood and relieve negative emotions.

After testing 400 students, they found that a 12-minute walk lifted their subject’s mood, even when they were told they would have to write a paper on their return. The walking cure still worked when the students walked through a drab building, rather than around the university grounds.

All the above brain-boosting effects were recorded in solo walkers. Walkers in a group reap the added benefits of support and companionship.

A survey of the 20,000+ members of Heart Foundation Walking underlined this advantage. More than three-quarters of its walkers had joined a group because they wanted to improve their health and fitness. But the social aspect was the strongest motivator for them continuing.

Take Tasmanian walker Jim Farelly from the “Geeveston Gators” walking group.

As a single man, he finds the companionship of the walking group as important as its fitness benefits.
“The walking group has filled a void in my life. It had also got me out and about to gain some fitness and meet new people,” he said.

So try walking today and give your brain a boost. All you need to start a Heart Foundation Walking group is a love of walking and one or more group members. The Heart foundation will support you with training & resources. For more information visit https://walking.heartfoundation.org.au/