As I stumbled upon an episode of Ramblings on the radio, the words “Cleeve Hill” and “mental health” picked my interest, so I left the programme on. Having recently walked and ran up and down Cleeve Hill (the backdrop of Cheltenham’s racecourse) I am curious to learn more about the area. I’m also interested to hear more about the perceived benefits of walking from the person being interviewed. A few days later, I read another article about walking and its benefit on cognitive skills. The seeds of walking were firmly planted.
I knew many of the facts from learning about the benefits of physical activity in general and running in particular, but I was pleased to hear that walking could be just as beneficial.
Not everyone has the privilege of being able to run. But if for whatever reason, medical or other, you cannot run, don’t let this put you off being active! There are numerous alternatives that can bring you similar benefits. just for today though, let's focus on walking.
Use it or lose it!
Aside from the physical and mental health benefits mentioned further down this post, there’s an evolutionary aspect to it which is fascinating, as Shane O’Mara, neuroscientist, explains. He describes the brain as “motocentric”, that is, our brain has evolved to support movement, and that if we stop moving, the brain doesn’t function as well. Think about it: what is the main difference between the Earth flora and fauna? The brain! He explains how the sea squirt starts life with a brain, but that as soon as it fuses with a rock and has no need to move anymore, it loses its brain (by eating it!). At the other end of the spectrum, there is a type of jellyfish which starts its life without a brain, but as they slowly become swimmers and therefore move about, they start developing a nervous system (which can be described as a sort of brain). Mind blown!
What are the benefits of walking?
Science evolves all the time and as we make new discoveries, recommendations change. One thing all studies and scientists agree upon though, is that walking is hugely beneficial to us humans. We are meant to move, as mentioned above.
Here are some of the demonstrated and proven benefits of walking, both for our physical and mental health. Walking:
Increases the natural brain rhythm (which is interrupted when sitting)
Sharpens the senses, leading to greater and faster information processing
Helps fight the ageing of the brain / Prevents the development of degenerative brain diseases.
Boosts learning and cognition
Improves the free flow of ideas and creativity (by as much as 60% as demonstrated by Stanford University)
Helps lower blood sugar levels
Strengthens the heart / Reduces risk of cardiovascular diseases
Improves overall fitness and tone the legs
Helps improve mood
Helps reduce depression
Supervised walking can help recovery from brain injury (dual activity of walking + talking stimulates blood flow to the brain).
Prevents weight gain
Boost immune function
Supports good mental health
How much is enough?
The World Health Organisation recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, which for example can be broken down in five 30-minute brisk walks during the week. Brisk means you should still be able to hold a conversation but you should notice a slight breathlessness.
It has been shown that regular steady walks outside can be as beneficial as running on a treadmill. Remember this next time your colleague brags about his trip to the gym!
Walking enables the brain to oscillate between “big picture state” where you may be thinking about an important work project, or a family holiday, or your next shopping trip and “task-focused work” which is the minute details of specific tasks, including the one of knowing where your foot is going to land. This forms the basis of creative work and how important associations are made. Walking is great to accelerate and improve the creative thinking process!
There have been many prolific walking thinkers who have all made huge contributions to human development: Bertrand Russel, TS Eliot, Aristotle, Wordsworth, W. r. Hamilton, etc… if it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for you!
How can I use this information to include walking at work?
There are lots of different ways of incorporating physical activity, especially walking, into the workplace:
Stand-up meetings are known to be more efficient, to the point, and lead to quicker decisions.
Walk & Talk lunch breaks: how about setting up a weekly/monthly walking lunch? You’ll be amazed at how it can bring your team together and what wonderful ideas can come out.
Rearrange the furniture! Strategically place the coffee machine or the printer slightly further away from the desks. It may seem less efficient if people have to walk for longer, but they will gain in efficiencies elsewhere.
Walking meetings: if you can do without a formal presentation and projector, head outdoors (as long as it is safe to do so) and lead your discussions while walking. The participants will be much more alert and open, while the flow of oxygen throughout your body, including the brain, will reward you with some great outcomes.
Encourage your teams to go for a short brisk walk outside if they start feeling tired. Rather than fighting the urge to snooze in the early afternoon and losing productivity, a 10-15 minute walk will get the blood and oxygen flowing again and you and your staff will be better equipped to tackle the afternoon’s tasks.
Time spent at one’s desk does not equal to productive hours. Taking short breaks to speed-walk around the block will have huge benefits on productivity. Work smarter, not longer!
Where is your favourite place to walk? Do you go for walks during the working day? Tell us about your experience!
Happy walking :)
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