What happens when you go for a walk?

You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood”. – F. Gros

The French philosopher Frederic Gros doesn’t specialize in the latest scientific advancements, but he recognizes there is a noticeable change in awareness when we walk. What if he is on to something? Researchers would argue that the brain and body is doing much more than simply walking. What is happening behind the scenes?

Our aging U.S. population needs accessible paths.

In addition to the known benefits of general exercise, walking recharges our creativity and improves short-term memory and spatial performance. Walking in nature, sometimes called “green exercise”,  increases these health benefits and buffers against depression, anxiety, and mental illness. Even a casual stroll through an urban park can offer immediate mood improvement

In a follow up to the mood improvement study, researchers use mobile EEG technology to effectively ‘test’ Gros’ statement by comparing the experience of walking through different environments. Does a casual walk evoke pleasant moods, or will challenges provoke a negative experience?

The study is part of a larger project looking at mobility, mood and place and the role of the urban environment in promoting lifelong health and wellbeing. The authors want to understand how older people experience different urban environments using mobile electroencephalography (EEG), self-reported measures, and interviews. As part of the experiment, eight volunteers aged 65 and over (from a wider sample of 95 people aged 65 and over) wore a mobile EEG head-set which recorded their brain activity when walking between busy and green urban spaces. The research team also ran a video of the routes the people walked, asking the participants to describe “snapshots” of how they felt. The volunteers were also interviewed before and after.

The results indicate that walking between busy environments and green spaces can alter mood and emotion, triggering excitement, frustration or calm.

As volunteers walked through the built environment, their self-reports and brain patterns indicated flows in both positive and negative moods. The green urban space was preferred by this group of older adults in subjective questionnaires and personal interviews, and the objective EEG measures also showed shifts towards a “relaxed brain state” when in the green spaces. A relaxed brain state correlated with the group seeing flowers, new growth, and natural landscape design.

The urban busy space had more negative associations. As one might imagine, the volunteers disliked navigating around sidewalk litter, uneven paving, and unexpected street furniture. More alert brain activity was associated with this heightened awareness and attention to potential threats. For older community members, busy urban spaces tend to have a higher ‘cognitive load requirement’ potentially leading to more negative mood states.

Research using mobile technology is still in it’s infancy, but it’s looking like there is much to learn about our brain and bodies as we take a walk in the park.

The authors encourage communities and urban planners to consider how maintaining access to green space and thoughtful design along sidewalks and city squares could be a relatively low cost option for improving mental and physical well-being among their aging population. Like Gros, they wish for a calmer experience when walking through the city.