Sunday, September 19, 2010

Walking and the Brain

"Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it . . . if one keeps on walking, everything will be all right." Soren Kierkegaard

Despite the many anxieties and crises of our time, we are also living in era of revolutionary developments in the fields of science, particularly in the study of the human brain. Every month we are learning more about how the brain functions, and consequently, beliefs about learning, memory, the imagination, emotion, and a whole host of other brain functions now must be re-evaluated. We now know, for example, that the brain evolves and changes as we age, countering long held beliefs that past a certain age in childhood the largely remained unchanged. We do in fact lose brain cells or neurons as we age but the brain’s ability to make new pathways or synaptic connections between neurons is virtually limitless. No, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Environment, experience, exercise, attitude, social engagement, and intellectual challenges are profoundly important for the on-going development of the bran and it’s health.

Recently, several studies have caught my attention that relate to walking and spending time in nature. Last week, in fact, a major study done at the University of Illinois by Kramer and Moss who study the role of how exercise affects the brain, they found that regular walking (forty minutes 3 days a week) dramatically affected brain connectivity and thus enhancing cognition. This was true as well with older adults, a helpful sign for people suffering from memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer's.

Another study at the University of Michigan looked at how where we walk affects brain function and concentration. In the study, one group of graduate students walked in urban an area—along busy commercial streets with traffic and little natural buffering, and another group walked along paths in more natural environments of parks with trees, grass, lakes, etc. Afterward the two groups were given basic cognitive tests, recalling lists, etc. And the difference in cognitive function was clear: those who walked in natural environments were much better in their scores. A similar study at Michigan also tested three groups for the role of nature on brain function. In this study, one group was wired as they watched a video screen of a natural environment, another group simply looked at a wall, and a third actually sat in the same natural area viewed on the screen of the first group. The result? The levels of brain activity i.e. the stimulation of various parts of the brain was most pronounced in the group sitting outside viewing the natural environment. But most interesting to me was that the levels of those looking at a wall and at the video image of nature was virtually the same.

Walking in nature seems so benign. But walking is actually much more of a complex physiological activity than we think; it involves multiple areas of the brain, which is why it is so beneficial. In nature, we must also negotiate pathways and environments that are unpredictable and highly stimulating. Motor function and perception are profoundly linked and being aware of this relationship enhances not only the pleasure but also the long-term health of our brain. Our brain is pattern maker and a pattern decoder. Every day we create new patterns by what we do, think, feel, and experience. And one pattern to weave into our lives is very simple: walking.

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