Amy Fleming takes a walk with Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist who reminds us that walking—and specifically making walking a habitual part of our lives—is both good and healthier than many alternatives:

I witnessed the brain-healing effects of walking when my partner was recovering from an acute brain injury. His mind was often unsettled, but during our evening strolls through east London, things started to make more sense and conversation flowed easily. O’Mara nods knowingly. “You’re walking rhythmically together,” he says, “and there are all sorts of rhythms happening in the brain as a result of engaging in that kind of activity, and they’re absent when you’re sitting. One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.”

From the scant data available on walking and brain injury, says O’Mara, “it is reasonable to surmise that supervised walking may help with acquired brain injury, depending on the nature, type and extent of injury – perhaps by promoting blood flow, and perhaps also through the effect of entraining various electrical rhythms in the brain. And perhaps by engaging in systematic dual tasking, such as talking and walking.”

One such rhythm, he says, is that of theta brainwaves. Theta is a pulse or frequency (seven to eight hertz, to be precise) which, says O’Mara, “you can detect all over the brain during the course of movement, and it has all sorts of wonderful effects in terms of assisting learning and memory, and those kinds of things”. Theta cranks up when we move around because it is needed for spatial learning, and O’Mara suspects that walking is the best movement for such learning. “The timescales that walking affords us are the ones we evolved with,” he writes, “and in which information pickup from the environment most easily occurs.” …

Some people, I point out, don’t think walking counts as proper exercise. “This is a terrible mistake,” he says. “What we need to be is much more generally active over the course of the day than we are.” And often, an hour at the gym doesn’t cut it. “What you see if you get people to wear activity monitors is that because they engage in an hour of really intense activity, they engage in much less activity afterwards.”

But you don’t get the endorphin high from walking, I say. “The same hit you get from running is what you’d get from taking morphine? We simply don’t know that’s true,” he says. “People who study this area don’t go on about endorphins and there may be a reason for that.” Not that he is opposed to vigorous exercise, but walking is much more accessible and easily woven into everyday life: “You don’t need to bring anything other than comfy shoes and a rain jacket. You don’t have to engage in lots of preparation; stretching, warm-up, warm-down …” O’Mara gets off his commuter train a stop early so that he can clock up more steps on his pedometer. To get the maximum health benefits, he recommends that “speed should be consistently high over a reasonable distance – say consistently over 5km/h, sustained for at least 30 minutes, at least four or five times a week.”

It’s the simple things…