The Art of Walking

Henry Thoreau once famously said, “An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” The naturalist-author took this stance seriously; to him, the natural world held a religious quality. It was his devotion. Thoreau was ahead of the rest of the world in many respects, and it seems that we can add the art of walking to his prolific list.

A recent study conducted jointly by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh found that the simple action of taking a short walk each day can alleviate brain fatigue. What is it about natural spaces that has such a universally restorative effect?

Art of WalkingBrain fatigue is often borne from over-stimulation. It affects the brain’s ability to remain calm and focused, resulting in higher stress levels and near-constant distraction. Brain fatigue is almost a prerequisite of those who live in urban areas. The concentration of buildings and people, combined with the prevalence of stimulating factors, leaves the brain perpetually whirring. By walking half a mile in a park, you can bring yourself to a calm place.

The New York Times explains how the study arrived at its discovery. Attaching EEGS (electric-activity recorders) to twelve healthy adults’ scalps, the researchers then set the participants on a walk throughout Edinburgh. The route consisted of three sections: first, a historic shopping district, second, a park, and third, a bustling commercial district. You can probably guess the results. Jenny Roe, the head of the study, explained that natural spaces still engage our brains, though we do not exert effort. She goes on to say, “It’s called involuntary attention in psychology. It holds our attention while at the same time allowing scope for reflection.” Cities and urban spaces do not allow this. Our brain is stimulated constantly, preventing us from entering a meditative state.

Art of WalkingAll the better if you can situate yourself near natural environments throughout the day. Past studies have found that living near trees can significantly reduce an individual’s levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. When we have so much to gain from a little one-on-one time with nature, doesn’t it feel natural that we should engage with it?

The New York Times article ends with a piece of advice.

The study suggests that, right about now, you should consider “taking a break from work,” Dr. Roe said, and “going for a walk in a green space or just sitting, or even viewing green spaces from your office window.” This is not unproductive lollygagging, Dr. Roe helpfully assured us. “It is likely to have a restorative effect and help with attention fatigue and stress recovery.”

Many people don’t have the luxury of a leafy park at their fingertips. Improvise with a courtyard or an outdoor porch, if need be. In twenty minutes, your brain could undergo a restorative transformation.

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