From toddlers to OAPs, everyone will feel the mental benefits of walking — our bodies were not designed to be sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day, writes Dan MacCarthy.
You know the feeling of elation you can get after striding along the beach or stepping it out into town? That’s not just the feelgood factor you get from the walk but is the result of an incredibly complex array of brain cells working in harmony.
These cells ‘learned’ or got programmed by the very act of movement millions of years ago to carry out functions vital for our distant ancestors to survive: to hunt, to find shelter, and to eventually migrate out of Africa.
If you are walking to think, or to clear your head, you are in good company. Writers from the poets Wordsworth and Rimbaud to the philosophers Nietzsche and Russell have all attested to not just the benefits of walking but the actual necessity of the activity to get their creative juices flowing.
Shane O’Mara is a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin. He is also the principal investigator in the university’s neuroscience research facility — one of the most advanced such centres in Europe.
A number of mechanisms operate within the structure of the brain to enable our capacity to walk and think, he says.
Hox genes determine our ability to move in a given environment and control the sequence of our body segments from the embryonic state.
Developmental biologists have proven that the Hox genes in humans had to have functioned first in the sea indicating that that was the environment from whence we came and concluded that propulsion was essential to evolution.
Another mechanism is known as the vestibular system which controls the position of the head via complex functions within the inner ear. This is closely linked with the mechanism of proprioception which is an innate sixth sense of where we are in space.
"It’s a sense that we don’t know that we have but we do. In order to get around in the world our brain has to have a map [GPS] a map of the body itself in order to move that body,” says O’Mara.
Another vitally important function is cognitive mapping which “allows you to figure out your speed and trajectory through an environment and allows you to estimate where you are.”
This mechanism is a fail safe that permits us to negotiate for instance if the power supply fails and the lights go out. It is the system that blind people use to walk around and is functioning away in the background constantly.
If you have damage to the part of the brain that supports the cognitive map, you lose your ability to find your way around in the world and this is crippling for example for people with tumours that might damage that part of the brain or Alzheimer’s disease which attacks it as well.
"A loss of orientation in time and space is one of the cardinal symptoms of Alzheimer’s,” says O’Mara.
For every hillwalker that gets lost, 10,000 don’t, and though situations can end tragically, most people are helped off the mountains by the courageous and selfless rescue services.
Of course, maps and compasses are vital navigational aids but our brains are more important navigational tools.
“If you’ve been out hillwalking and had a whiteout (cloud or snow) you can’t rely on the hilltop you’ve been navigating by, instead you have to rely on the body movements you just made.
The vestibular system contributes to all that type of thing. Similarly, if you’re in a room and the lights go out you can find your way back to the doorway pretty easily, because you have some ‘heading’ sense, you’ve got some distance information and an estimate of where the exit is relative to where you are.
This is all created for you in the background. Your brain is designed to do this without effort. There’s survival value in it. If you had to pay attention to everything you are doing your life would be crippled. You need to pick this stuff up on the fly,” says O’Mara.
Imagine someone in solitary confinement in a prison context: They are not using any of the above systems.
“You will be at a very high risk of depression, you will see wastage in the muscles because you can’t engage in the sort of normal movement you would have, your cognition is impoverished, the range of language you can use falls, you will see a wide range of effects,” says O’Mara.
Now imagine you are not in solitary confinement and the benefits you can gain from that. O’Mara strongly believes that offices need to be designed to cater for these biological drivers and to maximise the potential of staff.
The opposite, the majority of existing offices, are monuments to ‘dulled thinking’.
“Being seated for prolonged periods of time is physically taxing and is cognitively fatiguing. And you know when you have a knotty problem, sitting there banging your head off the desk is not the way to solve it.
"What you need to do is get up, walk around, think about something else and then come back to it. That’s the way you’ll solve the problem,” he says.
"There’s nothing more exhausting than sitting in a chair for eight hours,” he says.
Taking this theme beyond the office and into civic space, he says our towns and cities must be developed, or changed, to allow great boulevards, plazas and riverside walks free from the clutter of traffic and noise. A number of cities are clearing cars entirely out of their city centres.
Bolzano in the north of Italy or Pontevedra in Spain are two examples. O’Mara has coined the acronym EASE to capture the essence of what walking in the city should be. What we should aspire to: Easy, accessible, safe and enjoyable.
“Design principles built around the of EASE will benefit all of our lives,” he writes.
O’Mara’s own modus operandi for writing is testament to this very principle. He goes for long walks and records his thoughts into a dictaphone which he then converts to text and edits when he gets home. The raw materials are a by-product of his walks.
And you don’t have to be a hillwalker capable of knocking off Carrauntoohil in six or seven hours.
Any age from toddler to an elderly person will immediately feel the mental benefits of walking, says O’Mara. He states that you don’t get old until you stop walking, and you don’t stop walking because you’re old.
Our bodies are designed to engage in moderate levels of activity throughout the day from early in life to very late in life even if you have problems with limb stiffness etc, engaging in movement, getting out there and walking even if it’s only short distances is better than sitting around letting your veins and arteries silt up, he says.
So what are you waiting for? You’re a magnificent collection of Hox genes, vestibular systems and cognitive mapping systems matured over millions of years. So get walking!
In Praise of Walking, Shane O’Mara, Bodley Head, €15.99
■ Short walk: 30 minutes Dun Laoghaire pier
One of the most delightful walks in the country and where generations of Dubliners and non-Dubliners alike stretch their legs of an evening. With often hundreds of people strolling along in the French style of flaneur as mentioned in the O’Mara book, it is a great place for people-watching too. Passenger ferries can be seen on their way to Holyhead, expensive yachts cruising into the harbour, or just youngsters on paddleboards; it is a wonderful place to stretch the legs.
■ Medium walk: two to three hours - Glenbower Wood, Killeagh, Co Cork
A magnificent ancient woodland with native trees — sycamores, oaks, beech. There are a variety of waymarked trails in the woods. Now, with autumn chasing away the summer, is a lovely time to visit.
■ Long walk: full day - Carrauntoohil, Co Kerry
The daddy of them all with enough ozone to fill any lungs. Spectacular views and mysterious names like The Hags Glen, The Devils Ladder, and the Heavenly Gates make this walk feel as much of an adventure in a fantasy novel as a walk. Experienced hillwalkers can knock this out in five hours. Beginners may take around eight. Be prepared: Take appropriate clothing and plenty of food and drinks. You really should only attempt this with experienced walkers. Starting point: Cronins Yard, near Glencar