Stimulating Strolls in Science of Things We Do Every Day
Walk as if you are kissing the ground with your feet
Whenever I walk along a creek near my house, I’m awed by the sight of the giant red river gum trees that line both sides of the water. The trees are a common eucalyptus species in these parts. They can stand magisterially for more than 200 years. The creek was once part of the walking track followed by the Australian Aboriginal people for thousands of years. As I walk, I see an Aboriginal flag flying on a flagpole near the creek. A yellow circle in the centre of a rectangle divided in half horizontally, the upper half black and the lower ochre red, reminding anyone who cared to find out of an ancient culture’s spiritual relation to the land and the sun — the planet and the cosmos.
An unusual calmness descends upon my mind when suddenly I remember a day more than sixty years ago when I was a teenager and a keen walker. I was walking in a lonely street in a scenic town in the foothills of the Himalayas. When I saw an old Buddhist monk pacing in the front yard of a large house, as a sign of respect, I pressed my palms together and bowed my head a little.
The monk, his solemn face shining in the weak wintery sunlight, smiled and said something like, ‘My young friend, walk as if you are kissing the ground with your feet.’ I couldn’t understand what he was saying then, but I do know now that he was talking about mindfulness walking—the interconnectedness between the land and the mind.
When we are mindful, our minds focus on the present, and we respond with reason before emotion. We’re aware of every sensation as it unfolds at the moment. By ‘kissing the ground’ the old, wise man meant, ‘focus on the present and not let your mind wander’.
I also know now that the monk was part of the entourage of the Dalia Lama when he sought refuge in India. The year was 1959, and the Dalai Lama was only twenty-three then. He disguised himself as a soldier and slipped through the crowds outside his palace in Lhasa. He then embarked on a dangerous journey to India, crossing the Himalayas on foot with a small number of Tibetan soldiers and officials. For two weeks they travelled only at night to avoid detection by Red Chinese soldiers.
Inspired by the Dalia Lama’s long walk in the Himalayas from Lhasa to India-Tibet border, ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’. A cloud saturated with serenity, watching William Wordsworth walking in the fields and woods of England’s picturesque Lake District. His mind calm yet fiercely active in creative thinking, composing poems. The poems that are now as old and overpowering as the red river gum trees that surrounded me.
In the last years of his life when Wordsworth achieved literary fame, he began to receive many gifts, letters and requests for autographs or meetings. Sometimes travellers would arrive at his house unannounced. One such traveller came when Wordsworth was away. He requested the maid to show him the celebrated poet’s study. She took him inside and said, ‘Here’s his library, but his study is out of doors.’
In 1862, twelve years after Wordsworth’s death, Henry David Thoreau wrote more than 12,000 words in The Atlantic magazine extolling the virtues of walking in natural environments. Not a word about science, but a fascinating read.
The Brontë sisters—literary geniuses Charlotte (Jane Eyre), Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall)—went walking on the moors almost every day. ‘To the great damage of our shoes, but I hope, to the benefit of our health,’ notes Charlotte in a letter to a friend.
Charles Dickens was famous for his love of walking. The long hours he spent at his desk agitated him tremendously and walking helped his mind to calm down. If he walked all night, he could write all day, G. K. Chesterton remarks in his biography of Dickens. Not unexpected from the author of Great Expectations.
A simple but smart message
These of our perennial favourite writers were avid walkers and somehow knew walking benefits health. They had no idea that regular brisk walking reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, breast and colorectal and other forms of cancer, depression and many other ailments (it even helps people with Parkinson’s disease, as some studies suggest). But we do.
We also know that walking makes us smarter by boosting our mood, memory and learning. We know this because we have now learned a lot about hippocampus. This seahorse-shaped centre of learning in the brain is also closely linked to the limbic system that controls emotions and motivation. So, it truly takes care of our wellbeing. Our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of our hippocampus (you may bow to Sir Hippocampus).
When we walk or exercise brain cells, or neurons, in the hippocampus rev up, which in turn improve our cognitive abilities. The revved-up neurons also lift the mood by releasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins that make us happy. Exercise also helps us to get rid of chemicals that make us feel stressed and anxious. If you have a mental block, go for a walk or jog. The exercise would help you pull out of your funk.
It might also help increase the size of your hippocampus, which tends to decrease in old age. It used to be thought that ageing was a one-way process that was going the wrong way, but that’s not the case. Studies show that hippocampus is larger in older people who walk, jog or engage in aerobic exercises regularly. Any shrinkage in the hippocampus can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in general. Motivation and drive suffer in most types of dementia. Exercise can improve the brain’s decline or at least it can slow it down.
Exercise also causes the release of specific proteins known as growth factors. As the levels of these beneficial proteins build up, neurons start to branch out and start building new connections in the hippocampus. These new connections signify a new fact or skill which has been learned and stored for future use. As we age, individual neurons start to die. This loss is not permanent: the brain can make new neurons. Again, these proteins play a role in growing new neurons—and exercise helps in building up their levels by increasing blood volumes.
For the elderly, walking is the best way to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The benefits of walking accumulate once it becomes a routine habit. Unlike many other sports, walking never becomes impossible with advancing age. Jeanne Calment, the oldest person who ever lived, loved walking. The remarkable French woman died in 1977 at the age of 122. ‘Everyone knew the “little old lady” who dashed all over the town,’ writes one of her biographers, ‘who went down the steps of St Trophime church like a kid.’ She walked, walked and walked—that was the secret of her unbelievable long life.
Walking is an aerobic exercise. So are running, cycling, dancing and swimming. Recent research suggests that, besides its meditative side, yoga also qualifies as an aerobic workout, at least, if done rapidly. Fitness training is usually divided into three categories: cardiovascular, flexibility and strength. Aerobics counts as cardio, Pilates doesn’t as it helps boost our flexibility and joint mobility. Weight lifting is strength training.
Aerobic exercise gets our blood flowing faster and our heart pumping more of it, thus increasing the body’s use of oxygen. This increase in oxygen is known as VO2 max, or the maximum volume of oxygen a person can use. The higher our VO2 max, the more fit we are. The higher VO2 max is also a boon for the brain, which is the biggest consumer of oxygen in the body. Oxygen helps food to convert into energy, and the brain consumes about 20 per cent of our daily calorie intake. More oxygen to the neurons means neurons that they are better nourished. Many large-scale studies now closely correlate VO2 max with a significant increase in life spans, even among the elderly or overweight.
We are never too old or too young or pregnant or ill to reap the benefits of brisk walking. The science of walking is now overwhelmingly convincing. It has only one simple message: Walk briskly for at least 150 minutes per week, or walk casually thirty minutes every day. Even walking casually as little as two minutes per hour will go a long way to improve physical and mental health. It’s much better than merely sitting. Walking involves nearly four times more energy than sitting. Any activity that uses more energy than sitting on the couch is good for our health.
After analysing eight earlier studies, an international consortium of researchers has unequivocally shown the clear scientific evidence that higher levels of total physical activity—regardless of intensity level—reduces our chances of dying prematurely. In the British Medical Journal, they suggest 25 minutes per day of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, or 300 minutes a day of light, gentle activity such as cooking and cleaning.
Thought and sweat in equal measures
In our times, Steve Jobs, Apple’s legendary co-founder, was indeed an inveterate peripatetic. His preferred way to have a serious discussion was to take a long walk together. As a high school student, ‘he had developed a love of walking, and he walked the fifteen blocks to school by himself each day,’ Walter Isaacson writes in his highly acclaimed book, Steve Jobs.
In times that our history books tag as BC (or BCE in politically correct language), Aristotle was the first peripatetic. At the age of seventeen, Aristotle travelled to Athens, where he enrolled in the Academy of the renowned philosopher Plato.
Young Aristotle blossomed in the Academy’s stimulating intellectual environment; Plato nicknamed him ‘the mind of the Academy’. Plato, an athlete and a skilled wrestler, also inculcated in the mind of his young pupil the virtues of physical activity, besides ‘cultivating the mind’. ‘Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together … bring the two elements into tune with one another by adjusting the tension of each to the right pitch,’ he said. Thought and sweat in equal measures, in other words.
Years later, Aristotle also set up his Academy in Athens at the Lyceum, a temple of the sun god Apollo. He never forgot his teacher’s emphasis on combining education with physical activity and walked with his students up and down the Academy’s main avenue while teaching and discussing. The Academy soon became known as the Peripatetic School (from the Greek peripatētikos, ‘walking up and down’).
Aristotle’s regular walks were leading him towards becoming science’s poster boy of antiquity. What about your walks? Before you answer, say bonjour to the little prince. Born in 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince has inhabited the homes of 150 million who bought the book (in original French or one of the 300 official translations). But, like Aristotle, the little prince is not homebound; he is a peripatetic. When a merchant tried to sell him pills that had been invented to quench the thirst, he asked:
— Why are you selling those?
— Because they save a tremendous amount of time, said the merchant. Experts have calculated that with these pills you save fifty-three minutes in a week.
— And what do you do with those fifty-three minutes?
— Anything you like.
‘If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked, I would walk slowly towards a spring of fresh water,’ the little prince said to himself.
What would you say to yourself if you had fifty-three minutes to spend as you liked?
Walk in nature towards a spring of longevity
A team of Harvard researchers monitored 108,630 women who over eight years completed a regular detailed questionnaire about what they eat, when they exercise, how they live and what they do in their spare time. During this period, 8,604 died.
The researchers, led by Peter James, report in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, that when they used satellite data to see how green each woman’s surrounding was, they discovered higher levels of greenery were associated with decreased mortality. Women living in the greenest area were 34 per cent less likely die from respiratory illness than women living in the most paved-over areas. The rate of dying from cancer was 13 per cent lower. The greenness did not affect the mortality rate related to coronary disease, diabetes, stroke or infections. Even after accounting for socioeconomic status, age, race, ethnicity, smoking, body weight and other health and behavioural factors, the association between green space and good health stayed.
The results are not surprising as living near parks and gardens encourage walking and other aerobic exercises. Four factors in greener areas help explain the study results: less air pollution, more physical activity, more social engagement and, most significantly, better mental health, as measured by a lower prevalence of depression. To reap the benefits of nature, we need not move to the country. Any increased vegetation—more street trees, for example—seem to help us live longer.Walk in nature towards a spring of calmness and fresh ideas.
Walk in nature towards a spring of calmness and fresh ideas
When Aristotle, Wordsworth and Jobs took their study out of doors, they didn’t know walking was changing their brains. But they knew walking was more pleasurable than not walking, and sublimely it was making their minds calmer and creative. Science now stamps its approval to the walking meeting. Multiple studies have shown that walking outside is much better for creativity than sitting inside a dreary office. That’s thinking positively outside the box.
City dwellers with little access to green spaces have higher incidences of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people living near parks and the woods, claims an interesting US research study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Gregory Bratman and his colleagues conclude that city dwellers have a 20 per cent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 per cent higher risk of mood disorders as compared to people living in rural areas.
The highfalutin title of the study, ‘Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation,’ means simply: walking in nature changes the brain.
Brooding is a mental state in which we engage in deep thoughts about something that makes us sad, angry or worried. But repetitive thinking focused on negative emotions (or morbid rumination) is associated with higher risks of depression and other mental illnesses. The subgenual prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain, is active during rumination. Walking in nature, as opposed to walking in a high-traffic urban area, decreases activity in this region of the brain, thus reducing the risk of depression.
In an earlier study, the researchers found that volunteers who walked briefly through a quiet and leafy part of the Stanford University campus were more attentive and happier afterwards than the volunteers who strolled for the same time along a noisy and busy highway. This result was based on fill-out questionnaires, not on brain scans.
In the current study, the researchers checked for brain activity in two groups of volunteers, using scans that track blood flow through the brain. One group walked for 90 minutes in a grassland area scattered with oak trees and shrubs, and the other walked along a traffic-heavy four-lane highway. There was little difference between physiological conditions but marked changed in brain activity.
Lesser blood flowed to subgenual prefrontal cortex regions of the volunteers’ brains who walked in nature versus who walked in an urban environment. The lower flow of blood to this brain region shows less activity in this area, meaning the brain is calmer.
Many other studies have shown that walking in nature reduces stress and boosts wellbeing. A message to city dwellers from the little prince: To improve your mood, throw away your pills and walk, slowly or briskly, in a park or woods for at least fifty-three minutes towards a spring of fresh ideas. It may stifle your subgenual prefrontal cortex. Don’t brood over whatever or wherever this thing is in the brain.
To increase the duration of positive experiences of your walking, get a dog. Many studies have found that those who owned a dog walked an extra twenty-five or more minutes than who didn’t. Other studies suggest that if you believe walking makes your dog happy, you are more likely to walk your dog. It will, in turn, make you happy. You can also take heart from American Heart Association studies that link dog ownership with living longer. These people walked with their dogs, not let their dog roam freely outside as some dog walkers do, at least in Australia and the US.
I walk, think, therefore I am
In his early years René Descartes, the seventeenth-century French philosopher, was sceptical of almost everything, even his existence. He lost this scepticism after he concluded: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am)—arguably the single best-known philosophical statement.
When he went to a boarding school at the age of eight, Descartes enjoyed exceptional privileges because of his poor health. ‘My philosopher,’ as his father used to call him, was excused from morning school duties and was allowed to stay in bed until late in the morning. This habit of morning reflections in bed clung to him throughout his life.
Though the great philosopher loved lying in his bed, if he were living today, he would have undoubtedly reasoned that walking energises the brain to fire up chemicals that dull pain, lighten the mood, and relieve stress. We can experience this state of bliss only when exercising, not lying in bed.
Every morning Descartes would have left his bed for a brisk, long walk along the canals near his house, muttering in impeccable Latin, ‘I walk, think, therefore I’m.’ An admiring Aristotle following him, purring in passable French, ‘It’s all Greek to me, mon cher philosophe.’
Descartes would have also agreed that long walks—or any other aerobic activity for that matter—do not cancel out the negative impact of time spent being sedentary. Randomised, controlled trials provide only a partial picture of the benefits of aerobic exercise. Epidemiological evidence, however, shows a complete view. For better health, it’s not the time we spend exercising, but the time we spend not moving at all.
Time spent sedentary is associated with many of the common chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and osteoarthritis, and mortality. As far as heart disease is concerned, evolutionary biologists tell us, our hearts have evolved to allow us to be in steady, regular, aerobically based motion. Heart disease is not only related to ageing; the hearts of sedentary young people also show the hardening of arteries and high blood pressure.
Put simply, humans were born to walk and run; not to sit and engage with a screen.
Time to stop reading, to stand up and wander around ‘lonely as a cloud’. After a long brisk walk, you may experience a sudden eureka moment. Whatever follows (an innovative idea, poetic or practical), you’ll cherish it for a long time. Creativity and longevity follow you like two inseparable shadows when you go on a long walk—kissing the ground with your feet.
Experts suggest that also to build muscles as you are walking, carry a backpack. No walking and texting, and absolutely no twalking (don’t ask Professor Google what does it mean while walking).
© Surendra Verma 2020