For many people the words ‘exercise’ or ‘working out’ automatically conjure up images of spending copious amounts of time in a gym feeling uncomfortable or out of place amidst a bunch other people who all seem to know exactly what they are doing as they grunt and sweat their way to a ‘healthier’ self.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
Walking is one of most underrated form of exercise there is, and it can have tremendously positive impact on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing.
The physical benefits of walking are easy to understand. Joints move, muscles contract, and your heart stays healthier because it has to pump a bit harder from time to time.
But did you realise that walking also stimulates the activation of your brain and nervous system in critically important ways as well?
Your visual systems fires up, your sense of balance and equilibrium is enhanced, and the smoothly co-ordinated patterns of nerve activity that flow around your nervous system as you walk helps to keep your brain young, more capable of dealing with stress, and more creative.
Advances in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is a bit like a muscle:
‘Use’ it, and the brain changes dynamically in response to what you do, but do nothing, and the brain has a greater tendency to atrophy (shrink).
But what has that got to do with managing stress more effectively?
Well, the hippocampal formation – a key part of the brain that is involved with learning and memory – also happens to be involved in processing stress, and it now known with a high degree of confidence that lots of aerobic activity (i.e. getting out and walking lots) materially affects the volume of the hippocampal formation.
In other words, the hippocampal formation gets bigger as a result of exercise, and the functions it supports (including learning, memory and stress management) get better.
What’s more, this capacity for improvement seems to be retained right throughout our lives, so it is never too late to benefit from walking and the reverses in functional ageing of the brain that go can go with it.
All of this new information reinforces the idea that you don’t stop walking because you get old, but rather you get old when you stop walking. Movement is an essential nutrient for your nervous system, and walking is one of the best forms of movement there is.
Ok, so walking helps keep our brain and nervous system young, but how does that influence our creativity?
Professor Shane O’Mara – a Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity College, Dublin – explains the creative boost our brain can get from walking like this:
When we sit down to focus on any particular task our brain operates in a ‘Task Positive’ mode. This allows us to concentrate on the given task at hand and move it forward with a certain degree of efficiency.
However, creative problem solving happens most effectively when our brain is able to switch back and forth between this focused ‘Task Positive’ mode and a more generalised mode of neurological function known as the ‘Default Mode’.
O’Mara uses the ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ metaphor to try to explain these differing modes of brain function.
When we are engaged with a particular task we are working in a ‘Task Positive’ mode, which would be a bit like looking at a particular tree in a forest, but when we ‘zoom out’ or step back to look at the bigger picture (i.e. the whole forest) our brain tends to be functioning more in the ‘Default Mode’.
O’Mara explains that creative problem solving happens best when our brain is able to switch back and forth between these two general states of function, and that walking is one of the best ways to aid in this process of changing our neurological state.
As with all things neurological there is much more science to uncover, but if you’re struggling with a task at work, stressed out by your never ending homework, or just generally stuck in a rut with your thinking you could do a lot worse than going outside for a walk to boost your creativity and lower your stress.
It’s a strategy that has worked for countless other people throughout the course of human history, and it may just work for you as well.