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Just What We Need in a Pandemic: The Walking Cure

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As life continues to be disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak, lots of people are feeling out of sorts and would love to find some straightforward, free, and accessible way of remedying that. Even people who have been thriving wouldn’t mind an easy way of maintaining their good spirits. 

Professor Shane O’Mara, a brain researcher at Trinity College Dublin, may have an answer. He thinks that “physicians the world over [should] write prescriptions for walking as a core treatment for improving our individual and aggregate health and well-being.” 

Walking, Professor O’Mara believes, “enhances every aspect of our social, psychological and neural functioning.” I’m skeptical of such hyperbole, even as a lifelong lover of walking. Reading the case he makes in his new book, “In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration,” did not persuade me to sign on to such a sweeping celebration of my favorite form of exercise. But he did provide some compelling arguments, backed up by solid research. Here are a few of them.

Feeling Better, Mentally and Physically

Have you heard that you should walk 150 minutes per week? Credit an Irish study of more than 8,000 adults who were 50 or older. The participants who walked at least that much described their physical health and their quality of life as better. They were less likely to feel lonely or to experience symptoms of clinical depression, and more likely to be socially active, both formally and informally, than the participants who did not walk that much. The study was cross-sectional, though, so we cannot know for sure whether walking caused all those positive experiences or whether the correlations could be explained some other way. 

Ducking Depression

Not depressed and want to stay that way? There is some evidence that leisurely walking can help with that. In an ambitious study, nearly 40,000 adults, who were mentally and physically healthy at the outset, were followed for 11 years. Those who exercised were less likely to become depressed. Especially encouraging were the findings that the exercise did not have to be extensive. Even just an hour a week was beneficial, and it did not have to be intense — no need to be a power walker. 

Thinking Creatively

Want to think more creatively? Walking could help. Research participants who had spent some time walking did better on several different tests of creativity than those who stayed seated. They were more imaginative while they were walking and when they sat down afterwards. Just being in motion was not what mattered most — participants who were pushed in wheelchairs were not as creative as those who walked. Taking a walk outside inspired the most creative thinking, but even walking a treadmill got some creative juices flowing. 

What are you doing right when you are walking? Probably letting your mind wander. Research shows that the free flow of ideas in your own mind is good for creative problem-solving. 

Experiencing Solidarity

Walking with other people, Professor O’Mara contends, “can be central to our sense of connection to other people.” He explains that “on foot we are capable of interacting with each other at a human level: we quite literally have more common ground, we can synchronize more easily, and we can have shared experiences.” 

“In Praise of Walking” was written before the Black Lives Matter marches filled streets around the world in the spring of 2020 but is relevant to it. O’Mara points to research showing that walking together for a common purpose, as part of a crowd, can result in a psychological high. Along the way to potentially effecting real social change, the protestors may also be enhancing their own personal and collective well-being. 

Even walking alone, Professor O’Mara believes, can in some instances feel like an act of solidarity. One example is the solitary pilgrim who “is walking for, and with, an imagined community of the mind.” Another is the flaneur “who finds purpose in the social fabric of the city.”

Is Walking Really for Everyone?

Professor O’Mara is not shy about letting his readers know how far he walks and how often, and how challenging some of his walks can be. He suggests we download apps to keep track of our steps. I think those disclosures and recommendations were intended to be inspiring, but I found them dispiriting. I’ve loved walking my whole life, but I’m getting older now and arthritis has turned me into more of a hobbler than a rhythmic walker. The number of steps I take every day is headed just one way — down, down, down. 

I also worry about the people who cannot walk at all, either because of physical or medical limitations, or because they just don’t have the time. Even people who are not currently in those categories could end up in them. How will they feel when they read about how awesome it is to walk long distances each and every day, and that the benefits of being on the move are better if you are not in a wheelchair? 

And then there are the people who really, truly, just do not enjoy walking. There is no shortage of suggestions in the psychology journals and in places such as this Psych Central site for other ways of leading a mentally healthy and happy life, so they, too, have the potential to do just fine. 

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