We speak to neuroscientist and author, Professor Shane O Mara, about the wonders of walking.
What if there was something you could do for free every day that was guaranteed to lower your blood pressure, reduce your cholesterol and improve your overall physical and mental health?
You may not realise it, but walking is one of the simplest ways to maintain good cardiovascular health.
The fact that most of us have been walking since early childhood means that we tend to take it for granted and this, coupled with our increasingly sedentary lives, has resulted in a loss in the wonder of walking.
One person who has never lost this wonder and is now on a mission to reawaken the public to the marvels of walking, is neuroscientist and author Professor Shane O Mara.
Speaking to the Irish Heart Foundation, Prof O Mara said that walking upright with our spine vertical to the ground was unique to humans. We are also unique in that we are born completely helpless and around about our first birthday start pulling ourselves upright with no specific guidance from our parents.
Like speech, the ability to walk is innate in humans however, if a child does not hear others speaking it can be difficult for them to learn to talk, unlike walking, which we do without instruction.
“What we don’t appreciate, and this has only become obvious literally in the last couple of years, is just how much training infants and young children impose upon themselves when they are learning to walk,” Prof O Mara said.
He explained that a typical toddler leaning to walk, will fall up to 140 times an hour and they will take up to 2,000 tiny steps in that time period.
“At the age of about a year or so, this motor programme unwinds itself and we start to pull ourselves up into what is a very unstable stance compared to the position we were in previously [crawling]. But that changes completely how we interact with the world. It frees our hands for gestures, for emotion, it allows us to be tool using and it coincides with a big burst in language acquisition. It allows us to walk into and out of danger and to explore the world,” Prof O Mara added.
Walking is a skill that has its evolutionary origins millions of years ago, under the sea and the latest research is only now revealing how the brain and nervous system performs the mechanical magic of balancing, navigating a crowded city, or running our inner GPS system.
A typical toddler leaning to walk, will fall up to 140 times an hour and they will take up to 2,000 tiny steps in that time period.
Here comes the science bit – what happens in our brain when we walk?
Prof O Mara explained that there is a lot of activity in the brain when we walk and the first thing that happens is that we make the decision to walk. This decision leads to a command signal being emitted from the frontal lobe telling the rest of the brain and the body that we are getting up.
Prof O Mara described standing up in itself as an “engineering miracle.”
“If you were to draw a line from the corner of the eye to the auditory canal [in the ear] what you find is, when people are walking, that line remains approximately parallel with the ground. And if you lurch forward you stabilise your head position so that it continues to remain parallel with the ground.”
Once the message is sent to the body to stand up, the body must then maintain its upright position with respect to the earth’s gravitational fields.
Next, the brain sends another signal telling your body to walk.
Prof O Mara explained that we all have what are known as “pattern generators” in our spinal cords that kick off the walking process and we don’t think about walking again unless we encounter an obstruction or the ground slips beneath our feet, for example.
The next step (excuse the pun) is that we have to know where we are going and again, the brain takes care of this process thanks to its highly elaborate inbuilt GPS system.
“Not alone do you send out these command signals to tell you to get moving, you have to have a goal and the miracle of this system is that it works without you having to think very hard about it, unless you are lost.”
Prof O Mara said this elaborate system learned in what is known as a “latent fashion,” which means that you don’t appreciate the fact that you are picking up information as you are moving along a route.
“This is easily shown. If you are in a room and the lights go out you can remember where the door is, you can remember where the obstructions are and you can find your way out without too much trouble…regular movement is needed to keep that part of your brain in good working order,” he explained.
A remarkable but underappreciated ability
Seen through Prof O Mara’s eyes, walking truly is a remarkable ability. However, those of us lucky enough to be able to walk with ease, have taken it for granted and no longer appreciate its unique and transformative effects on our lives.
With his new book ‘In Praise of Walking,’ Prof O Mara hopes to “place walking back into the centre of our lives.”
Just like we are built to walk, the human body is also wired to conserve energy; something that we can do with ease thanks to chairs. However, our increased sedentary lifestyles and challenges of the built environment means that we are sitting more and moving less which is bad news for our health.
According to Prof O Mara, we are built to walk very considerable distances from early in life until very late in life however, we don’t do this because our environment militates against it.
" We want to turn our streets into destinations rather than thoroughfares,”
Prof Shane O Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research , Trinity College Dublin
Walk more during your commute
Prof O Mara said that both individuals and society had a responsibility to reduce our sedentary lifestyles and there were a number of things we could do to achieve this.
As individuals, Prof O Mara said we should all be “slightly obsessed with” measuring our steps (it is recommended that we all take at least 10,000 steps a day) and we should also enable an alert on our phones or work computers that remind us to get up and walk around every 25 minutes or so.
Other tips Prof O Mara suggested included, getting off the bus or the dart one stop earlier and walking the rest of the way, if you are going for lunch try not to always chose the café nearest to the office, why not try a new lunch spot further away?
Society also needs to be more walking centric and Prof O Mara said that our overuse of cars has discouraged walking.
He suggested increased investment in public transport and increasing tree cover on our streets, so they are more attractive places to walk and offer shelter from the elements.
“There is a policy issue there for urban engineers and urban planners to say individuals walking is what we want and what we then do is say, we want to turn our streets into destinations rather than thoroughfares,” he said.
Walking is good for you
Prof O Mara said that male hunter gatherers in both Africa and South America typically walk between 15 and 18 km a day with females covering between 12 and 15 km daily. “Their coronary artery health is really remarkable, the average 80-year-old has a coronary health equivalent to an average 50-year-old in the West,” he said.
Walking has been proven to improve your mood, cardiovascular fitness, emotional wellbeing and help you lost weight and Prof O Mara added that social walking i.e. walking with a friend has also been proven increase your level of social connectedness.
“Higher levels of social connectedness moderate the effect of disease at all ages and at all stages of life. So, social connectedness is one of the really vital things that one can do to prolong your life,” he explained.
In conclusion, Prof O Mara said the simple message was “lots of walking regularly every day is a very simple and wonderful health fix.”
He added that everybody should be prescribed at least 5,000 extra steps a day in addition to what they are already doing.
“Lots of walking regularly every day is a very simple and wonderful health fix.”
Prof Shane O Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research , Trinity College Dublin
Escape your chair
This September, The Irish Heart Foundation is encouraging everyone to sit less and move more with its month long heart health campaign entitled, ‘Escape Your Chair’.
Higher levels of sedentary behaviour are associated with a 147 per cent increase in the risk of heart disease and stroke. There is increasing evidence that the positive health benefits of exercise may not entirely counteract the negative effects of a mostly sedentary lifestyle.
On Saturday, September 28th at 9.30am, the Irish Heart Foundation is encouraging everyone to walk, jog, or run at their local parkrun for the Irish Heart Foundation’s ‘Heart Hero 5K’ in association with parkrun Ireland. To encourage and everyone to get involved, the Irish Heart Foundation is providing a number of different training guides and plans.
In Praise of Walking by Professor Shane O’Mara is published by The Bodley Head and is out now.
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