By ARIADNE WEINBERG, Featured Columnist
For as long as I can remember, I've been a walker, and for as long as I can remember, I've been a writer. But I never stopped to consciously consider how intricately those two things were linked.
For me, it has always been just a given that walking for hours a day made me feel good: It gets out excess energy, it causes mild euphoria, it’s a kind of meditation where I can let my mind wander in a relaxed way. Perhaps the same can be said about writing. Both activities are a bit like breathing for me.
True, I feel more recharged after a walk, emotionally and mentally. But I never knew until now that it was actually quite linked to my creativity; that all these years walking had been fomenting my creative side. (And maybe my writing also fomented my walking, after wanting to get up and take a break after writing for hours on end.)
I’ve learned that walking can not only help me in my career path, but also give me a boost academically, too, and keep my aging brain sparky.
Read on to discover my findings. And, after you're done, take a brisk walk.
Get Creative By Walking
The artists among us are always looking for ways to “get inspired.” The common advice is to just create anyway, until your muse shows up. But, there are always ways to give her a little more motivation to appear, and walking is one of them.
In 2014, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz conducted various studies on the effects of walking and creativity.
The scale of creativity was measured by Guilford's alternate use test of creative divergent thinking (GAU) and the compound remote associates test of convergent thinking (CRA).
In the first test, they divided test subjects into two groups: one that was seated, and one that walked on a treadmill.
In the walking group, scores on the GAU were a whopping 81% higher, and on the CRA, 21% higher.
In the second experiment, they completed just the GAU with three possible combinations: seated then walking, walking then seated, or seated twice.
They discovered, once again, that walking led to higher GAU scores, and gave a residual creative boost right after the activity.
The third and fourth experiments revealed especially good news for hikers, and people who love long walks on the beach.
In the third experiment, they generalized the prior effects to outdoor walking, and in the fourth experiment, they looked at the effects of walking on creative analogy generation.
Strolling Outside Is Better
It turned out that strolling outside both got higher scores on the previous tests and produced the most novel and highest-quality analogies.
So if you're having a creative block, get away from your desk for half-an-hour to see the world.
And remember that creativity isn't just for artistic types. Everyone needs it for problem-solving, especially professions that are thought of as less “artistic”, but still require generation of ideas, such as in programming, engineering, and medicine.
Regardless of where you are academically or what you do professionally, a little walk will help your mind keep flowing. If you need proof --Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook is reported to be a fan of "walking meetings".
Protect Your Future Brain by Walking
Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are growing problems in many parts of the world.
But they don't have to be. In large part, cognitive decline has to do with living a sedentary lifestyle.
Sedentary living stagnates you both physically and mentally. The key is to activate. Studies show that getting active can start with something as simple as taking a walk three times a week.
No expensive gym memberships or suffering required.
Kirk Erickson from the University of Pittsburgh wondered what effect walking and stretching would have on the cognitive function of older individuals.
In 2014, he examined a group of 100 people from 60 to 80 years old who admitted to doing little to no exercise in their daily lives.
He split them into two groups. One group walked 30-45 minutes for three days a week. The other group stretched for the same amount of time.
There were minor increases in the two brain regions in both groups, but the effect was more significant with walkers.
The pre-frontal cortex of walkers increased in size by 2-3%. This may not sound like a lot but it is. This increase of 2% to 3% is actually enough to offset the shrinkage that often happens in old age.
Participants also scored higher on spatial memory tests, and reported feeling less “foggy” in general, with a sensation of more mental clarity.
All parts of the brain linked to memory and planning improved over the course of a year, as well.
This discovery of walking's ability to increase brain size has great implications for older people who want to improve their mental faculties.
It isn't as if the brain just starts declining once you reach a certain age. You can always wake it back up. However, it's always best to get into the habit while you're still young.
In my experience, if you walk with friends, it feels like you've walked less than you actually have.
Get into the routine of social walking, or exploring new places in the neighborhood for fun.
Rev up Academically
Walks have been shown to be a great way to score higher on tests, and do better in school. Especially for us ladies.
A 2010 study by David Martinez-Gomez from the Spanish National Research Council found that girls who walked or biked to school did significantly better on tests of cognitive function than those who got driven.
Those whose active commute was more than 15 minutes had an even bigger performance boost.
No one has reached a definite conclusion on why this happens, but Dr. Francois Trudeau from the University of Quebec, who was not directly involved in the study, opined that perhaps a walk to school could be a good time to “start thinking about the school day.”
Instead of just jumping into things, maybe walking gives a little mental warm-up as well as a physical one.
As for the marked improvement in girls, but not boys, experts haven't reached a definite conclusion on that one, either. It could be that in Spain, it's culturally normal for boys to exercise more. Or it could be a general difference amongst the sexes. More tests are needed to find out. I would certainly volunteer to stroll for science.
But Why Does Walking Wake Up Your Brain?
There are a few logical hypotheses as to why walking keeps your brain in shape. Justin Rhodes, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, says it comes down to a few things:
Blood flow: Blood carries oxygen to the brain, making it work more efficiently.
Activating the hippocampus: Exercise makes it active. According to Rhodes, “When neurons in this structure rev up, research shows that cognitive function improves.”
But remember, as Gretchen Reynolds, health and fitness writer at the New York Times reminds us, it's important to keep it up as a habit.
The recommended amount is about 5 miles a day, but of course, it's better to walk 2 miles every day than 15 miles one day. Consistency is key. So find places you want to explore. Grab friends. Grab your headphones. Get ready to feel better and be smarter.