2 Reasons Why Walking Outside Provides Well-Being Benefits

Recently I have increased the amount of walking I am doing outside, and I started thinking about how I was told once, by a college counselor, to “go take a walk outside.”  This piece of advice seems plain enough, but at the time I was as an eighteen year old freshman in the depths of the first and only severe depression I have ever experienced.  So to me, as the recipient of that comment, making a call for help to the counseling services office, this response fell on me like a brick.  At the time, I heard this advice as demeaning, rude, and insensitive to my concerns.  Now, looking back after years of thinking the counselor was so wrong about that comment, I can wonder if he was actually trying to give me good advice.  My hope now is that he was taking into consideration the benefits walking could provide.  Here, the current research will be explored that shows major well-being benefits from walking in nature including: 1. boosting mood and 2. increasing creative output.  

First, walking can boost mood to some degree.  The many physical benefits of walking can include better cardiovascular health and decreased diagnosis of diabetes, but the actual physical benefits discovered in the brain are the most fascinating as they relate to boosting an individual’s mood.  It must be noted that walking cannot replace medical care and treatment of depression.  “For some people it works as well as antidepressants, although exercise alone isn’t enough for someone with severe depression,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.  Harvard Health Letter.  “Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression: Exercise is as effective as antidepressants in some cases.”  Updated: February 2, 2021, Published: July, 2013, available at:  https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression.  Walking on a consistent basis overtime can provide mood lifting benefits supported by neuroscience research.  What has been found is that walking causes, “the release of proteins called neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. The improvement in brain function makes you feel better. “In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression,” explains Dr. Miller.” 

This specific scientific evidence provides such motivation to walk!  I see this now as a reason why I was told to take a walk outside when I was experiencing such a stronghold of depression.  Today, I can see the benefits of walking in terms of the boost in mood I get when I am able to go out and walk.  Recently, the deep freeze that hit the Chicagoland area impacted the ability to safely walk outside.  Not only were days below zero on the Real Feel gauge, but also the ice and snow on the sidewalks and roads presented a danger of slipping and falling.  These were challenges and some days they won.  On the days when I was able to navigate the ice and freezing temperatures, I felt like a real champion of the challenge.  I can say that I found the biggest mood boost finishing a walk one morning that literally was the coldest I had ever walked.  I felt energized not only by the early morning walk, but also about defeating the winter blast!  After making it back home unscathed by the temperature and icy roads, I felt elated.  I always think of taking a walk in sunshine and warm weather being the best, especially near an ocean and sand, but I had never experienced such a high from setting out against the winter elements and winning!  It is strange, but true.  Sometimes what looks like the worst presentation of conditions for a walk can turn out to be the best, most beneficial mentally.  I would definitely add this to my list of reasons why I am a believer in walking.   For more reasons see: https://megandaviamikhail.com/2021/01/19/persevering-with-an-exercise-routine/

Next, the benefits of walking in nature can also include increasing creative output.  What does that mean?  I have seen this written before and wondered how that can be scientifically proven true.  Basically, when out on a walk it gives the brain a chance to process thoughts and generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.  Brianna Steinhilber.  “Why walking is the most underrated form of exercise.”  Dated September 2, 2017, available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/why-walking-most-underrated-form-exercise-ncna797271.  Specifically, I needed to see the science that supports this notion.  According to a study conducted at Stanford University in 2014, “[w]alking outside produced the most novel and highest quality [creative analogy generation]… Walking opens up the free flow of ideas, and it is a simple and robust solution to the goals of increasing creativity and increasing physical activity.”  Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz.  Stanford University. “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. American Psychological Association 2014, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1142–1152, available at: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xlm-a0036577.pdf.  The scientists whom conducted this research developed four studies to find out if this notion that walking is good for your mind is actually scientifically true.  They had most students and other participants walk outside and then take various analogy tests.  After seeing the results of all four studies, the Stanford scientists concluded that, “[w]alking is an easy-to-implement strategy to increase appropriate novel idea generation. When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.” 

Science supports walking for creative thinking and productivity.  History does as well.  It is interesting to see that many creative thinkers were also big walkers.  Surprisingly, the list is long:  Socrates, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kant, Beethoven, Darwin, Einstein, Woolf, to name a few.   Charles Dickens reportedly walked on average twelve miles a day, which is extraordinary, all while writing creatively classic novels still read today.  Luke McKernan.  “WALKING WITH CHARLES DICKENS.” Dated February 2, 2016, available at:  https://lukemckernan.com/2013/06/09/walking-with-charles-dickens/

Overall, walking is beneficial for at least two good reasons: both to boost mood and increase creative thinking.  However, what I don’t want is for any reader to think, “This is just saying: go take a walk.”  No, I was given that advice before and experienced that negatively.  My hope is that the message taken away will be:  walking will not fix everything, but there are good reasons to actively walk on a regular basis for improved well-being, especially to brighten your outlook and improve your creativity.

© 2021 Megan Davia Mikhail

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