“Let me persuade you to follow my example, and take a turn about the room – I assure you it is very refreshing after sitting so long in one attitude.”
This, said by Miss Bingley to Miss Bennet, is one of my favourite lines from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. If you aren’t familiar with the book, or with any of Austen’s work, this is quite a good example of a lot of the subject matter: two young women taking a walk together so they can gossip about eligible young men, in this case rather bizarrely around the inside of a sitting room.
A life spent doing nothing but trying to get yourself married off does have its drawbacks, but one advantage of these young ladies over most people’s lives today is that they got a lot more walking done. Books from the period are full of episodes of the upper classes ‘taking exercise’, around their enormous estates. While most of us don’t have several acres of land to proudly survey, we can get just as much benefit from walking in public parks or along busy city pavements.
We already know that walking is beneficial – it’s a good form of exercise, and also involves getting outside for some fresh air. But Shane O’Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research at Trinity’s Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin, has gone further in his research to try and explain exactly what walking does to the brain and why we should do more of it. He believes walking can improve brain activity, and even called it a ‘superpower’ in a recent interview with the Guardian UK!
“One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened,” he said. “Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.”
O’Mara points to great thinkers and writers who used walking as a means to generate ideas, including Bertrand Russell, William Rowan Hamilton and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Some people don’t consider walking ‘proper’ exercise, but O’Mara argues that what we really need is to be more active generally over the course of the day. It doesn’t make any sense, for example, to go to the gym for an hour in the morning, then sit still at a desk all day. If you have an office job it’s important to make sure you move around – get some water, go to the loo, or go and visit a colleague rather than sending yet another email!
It may seem counter-productive to take time away from your desk, but research suggests it will make you work better. “Getting people to engage in physical activity before they engage in a creative act is very powerful,” O’Mara said. “My notion – and we need to test this – is that the activation that occurs across the whole of the brain during problem-solving becomes much greater almost as an accident of walking demanding lots of neural resources.”
A lot more research is needed on the benefits of walking, but there’s already overwhelming evidence that is does improve brain activity. Have you ever had a difficult email to send, problem to solve or decision to make, and found yourself going for a walk to think about it? O’Mara’s research may go some way to explaining why this is effective. You can read more about it in his recently-published book, In Praise of Walking.