Prof. Shane O’Mara is a neuroscientist from Trinity College Dublin. He’s a professor of experimental brain research and a principal investigator in and director of the Trinity College Institute of neuroscience which is one of Europe’s leading research centres for neuroscience.
He has written a book called In Praise of Walking, which is all about the history of walking, how it works, and the advantages it has for our bodies and minds. In this talk, we focus on the chapter – A Balm for Body and Brain.
Watch the full interview here –
There is plenty of evidence that walking is good for our health.
Many of our clients have reported feeling much more healthy while training for and walking the Camino de Santiago, or other long walking holidays.
One of the main examples Shane talks about is that of a 62-year-old male in Italy. He had never undertaken long-distance walking, and he undertakes the Via Alpina across northern Italy and eastern France and across Switzerland. It measures about 1,200 kilometres and he travels it over a period of a few weeks. He had never undertaken a walk like this. His health and body were measured before the walk, during it, and after.
Remarkably, even though he had never done something like this, his body adapted really quickly to the rigours of a long walk. This is because we are built to walk.
Walking reduces our risk of heart disease.
In somebody like this, we see a variety of adaptations and bodily changes. For example, a decrease in LDLs or low-density lipoproteins. These are the bad fats that clog up your arteries and predispose you to cardiovascular disease. You also get an increase in the good fats, the HDLs our high-density lipoproteins, that are cardioprotective. Effectively, walking improves your heart health and makes you less likely to have a heart attack.
An excellent example of this is in the Tsimane people, in South America. They walk around 15 kilometres or more per day due to their lifestyle. A Tsimane male of 80 years has a cardiovascular health equivalent to the average 50-year-old American, in other words, their circulatory system is much more like that of somebody who’s thirty years younger than they are.
You will also get fitter, with an improvement in aerobic capacity so they’re able to breathe better. You will be able to handle the exercise you are doing more easily.
Walking improves our immune system.
You even get improvements in your immune system – making it better at identifying, fighting off and recovering from diseases. People who are not active can display a type of subchronic inflammation in their body because the cells of the immune system (the white blood cells) aren’t mobile.
If they are not moving around the body as they should be, they will not be regulating information properly. Inflammation isn’t bad, an inflammatory response signals that something is wrong somewhere in the body. However, what you don’t want is an inflammatory response all over your body. A localised response signals to the cells of the immune system that something is wrong and the body can fight it where the problem is.
The normal immune signalling is regulated much more effectively in someone who engages in lots of walking and compared to sedentary people. This is because the blood flows around all the muscles and allows for better locating and attack of infections.
Walking can improve your memory.
From a mental health perspective, people who are more active and engage in more walking have been shown to be more resistant to the onset of, or the likelihood of the onset, of a major depressive episode. These active people also report more peaks of happiness and more peaks in their well-being compared to people who are less active.
Muscle use also improves the health of brain tissue. There are molecules that are made in the muscle called myokines. They are only produced in muscle under stress, so when a muscle is being used repeatedly. Research suggests that myokines are reparative and restorative. They pass out of muscle when it is being used and they circulate within the blood. When they pass into the brain they enhance plasticity (the ability for the brain to change and grow new cells) in a variety of brain regions. This includes better blood flow and better connections between brain cells. Myokines promote resilience of the brain.
Brain plasticity is amazing. The growth and change that happens in our brains as a result of walking can actually improve our ability to form and recall memories. This is because one of the most affected areas is the hippocampus, and specifically the hippocampal formation, which s intimately concerned with memory.
It can continue to produce new cells throughout a person’s life, but the level at which it does this is dynamically regulated by how much activity you engage in, in other words, how much aerobic exercise you are getting. The more active you are the better your brain will be at remembering.
We need to move more.
Shane would like to see a world where we design walking back into our daily lives so that we can see the benefits of this added health-promoting activity. He believes that it should be made to be integral to every part of our everyday lives again, and not just something that we do on the weekends or when we go on holiday. Walking every day, even small amounts can have big health benefits.
Shane believes that we need to become more focused on measuring our activity and tracking our steps. Human brains are not naturally good at measuring our exercise so it can be hard for us to keep track of how well we are doing. If you want to improve your health by walking, you might want to work out a good way of measuring how much you do. This could be with an app on your phone or with a wearable activity tracker.
To get the most out of walking you should aim to walk at a reasonable pace – between five and a half and six kilometres per hour. It should be difficult to talk freely to another person while you are walking. If you do this for half an hour or more you will get a pretty good work out and give your body a chance to create all those good molecules in your body.
Our bodies are built for movement and respond positively to movement. The more we move the healthier we will be and the better we will feel.
Try to incorporate a good amount of walking into your life, and consider taking that to the next level with walking holidays.
Stay well, get walking!
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Originally published on 7th April 2020, updated on