Here's What Walking Does to Your Brain

July 23rd 2015

A stroll in the park might be just as relaxing and amazing as it sounds.

New research from a Stanford University graduate student found that people who walked through a beautiful and green part of the campus were more attentive and cheerful afterwards than another group that walked for the same amount of time by a loud freeway. The participants walked at their own pace and without music or companions. After the walk, each volunteer went to a lab for a questionnaire and brain scan, which determined their levels of happiness and attentiveness following the exercise. Unsurprisingly, walking along the freeway did not soothe the volunteers' minds, but those who walked in nature demonstrated improvements to their mental health. Those who walked on the Stanford campus showed less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain that handles repetitive thought or negative emotion, which remained high for those who walked along the highway.

Study author Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at Stanford University's Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, told the New York Times that these findings “strongly suggest that getting out into natural environments” might be an easy and convenient means for city folks to see a boost in their moods.

Bratman pointed out, however, that this study is only the beginning and more research must be done to determine how much nature time is perfect for one's mental health and what exactly it is about nature that soothes people.

How much walking should a person do per day?

Movement and exercise can have a significant positive impact on a person's mental and physical health. As ATTN: reported earlier this month, the health community typically encourages people to walk 10,000 steps per day, which is about five miles. Researchers estimate it takes roughly 2,000 steps to reach a mile. Unfortunately, the average American only walks about half the recommended amount of 10,000 steps, according to Catrine Tudor-Locke, director of the Walking Behavior Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Last year, she told Live Science that the average American takes about 5,900 steps a day. 

Many other nations, however, are way ahead of Americans in terms of steps walked per day. An earlier Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise study that looked at the two-day pedometer results of different adults found Americans only took took 5,117 steps a day while the average person in western Australia was nearly 9,700, the average in Switzerland was 9,650, and the average in Japan was 7,168.

Study lead Dr. David R. Bassett Jr. told the New York Times that he was surprised to see how sedentary Americans were. He also referenced a 2004 study in the same journal that revealed Amish folks are ahead of all Americans and most of the world in terms of walking. Male adults in Amish farming communities took nearly 20,000 steps and female Amish people averaged more than 14,000 daily.

"These latest values are about one-third of what Amish people take in farming communities,” Bassett said. “It really does suggest to us that there’s been a tremendous decline in the last century and a half in the amount of walking people do.”

According to the Mayo Clinic, regular brisk walking can help you maintain a healthy weight, boost your mood, improve your coordination and balance, and strengthen your bones, among other benefits. 

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