Monday “What Went Well”: More evidence that your daily walk is the best thing you can do for your health.

There’s the stuff we think we know, there’s the stuff we sort-of know, and there’s the stuff that basically hits us upside the head with its obviousness, even when our little monkey minds want to just fuggheddaboutit and go fishing.

The obvious headline: Walking is really, really good for us.

These shoes were made from walking. And somebody walked in them, a whole lot. Well-worn gear means you've had some fun out there. (Image courtesy of cbenjasuwan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
These shoes were made from walking. And somebody walked in them, a whole lot. Well-worn gear means you’ve had some fun out there. (Image courtesy of cbenjasuwan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

And not in a calorie-burning way, or a muscle-building way. Though they’re both good too. No, walking is good for us in a thinking way, in a getting-refreshed way. It’s good for us in a soul-nourishing way.

A couple of weeks ago I decided that my days were best started with a morning walk and a cup of coffee or a latte (I make my own, with an old-fashioned Italian stovetop espresso maker and a little milk foamer from IKEA, which costs all of $2.99 plus one AAA battery). I go to a little city park near my home and circle the walking path – a little less than a half-mile for every lap. I try to remember to charge up my iPod beforehand so that I have some music to keep me company. And I just walk. Fast, when I remember to. Strolling at other times. With weather-appropriate clothing (I don’t walk in thunderstorms or high winds, but I might in a drizzle).

And when I come back, I’m brimming with energy and ideas.

A funny thing happened, though, after I started adding these walks – 30 to 45 minutes or so – into my morning routine. I felt better all day long. My weight was just a teeny bit easier to maintain (it’s not super-hard anymore, but it’s still something I have to pay attention to – and that’s status quo for those of us who have lost significant amounts of weight: not a biggie, just an awareness). I stopped spending my monkey-mind mornings reading the news, which can be stunningly depressing. (My father used to cover the “three C’s” – courts, crime and cops – for one of the old Philadelphia newspapers. I’m positive that’s at least part of what led to his general malaise about life, and his early death – being surrounded by tragedy all day long.)

So, what went well this week? It’s a little ironic.

I forgot to do several of those long morning walks. And I instantly, instantly felt the difference. My morning positivity morphed into morning malaise. I didn’t get all of my planned workouts in (the biggie aerobic ones, like my running – at least not at the pace and level of effort I wanted). I didn’t feel like I accomplished as much as I had on the days when I went walking.

Hmmmmmm.

Rocket science? No.

This week the New Yorker published an excellent and very thoughtful piece on the many, many benefits of walking. “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” by Ferris Jabr, has so much good stuff in it that if I were to quote all the greatest hits, I’d basically be reprinting the entire piece. A couple of highlights to wet your whistle (the links to the research studies were included in the original online article on the New Yorker website):

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

Get it? Walking positively impacts our brain chemistry. Another gem,   near and dear to my heart because of work I’ve done in the area of promoting outdoor fitness:

Where we walk matters as well. In a study led by Marc Berman of the University of South Carolina, students who ambled through an arboretum improved their performance on a memory test more than students who walked along city streets. A small but growing collection of studies suggests that spending time in green spaces—gardens, parks, forests—can rejuvenate the mental resources than man-made environments deplete. Psychologists have learned that attention is a limited resource that continually drains throughout the day. A crowded intersection—rife with pedestrians, cars, and billboards—bats our attention around. In contrast, walking past a pond in a park allows our mind to drift casually from one sensory experience to another, from wrinkling water to rustling reeds.

This is good, good stuff. And as someone who has test-driven (test-walked?) the science, I can tell you from personal experience that I’m impressed. A well-“worth it” read to get you out there and walking, before you do anything else with your day.

Recent Every48 workouts: Yesterday, a quick BIKE ride at the gym – just 30 minutes but a good effort. Last Friday, a lovely RUN in the same park where I take my morning walks – four whole miles without a walking break as I work back up to some decent mileage for fall races after a summer spent taking care of a wonky knee/quadriceps package.

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