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Taking steps to a healthy body and mind PDF Print E-mail
Written by HOLLY HOFMANN   
Thursday, 12 August 2010 14:46

George Carlin used to joke in his comedy act: “Walking Magazine? What’s next, a magazine about breathing?” The idea of an entire publication devoted to an activity so innate and so basic might seem a little preposterous.

Researchers believe an hour of walking a day can significantly cut the risk of heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, stroke and several other diseases.
Photo:  Holly Hofmann/Calgary Journal
While Walking Magazine collapsed in 2001, walkers and researchers alike attest there’s more to it than just putting one foot in front of the other.

“Bipedalism is a defining characteristic of Homo sapiens,” says Jim Wood, an avid walker. “We’ve been upright for a long, long time. We seem to have developed every contrivance and conveyance to avoid walking, whereas as a species, walking upright is a defining characteristic.”

With the recent discovery of Ardi, a bipedal female skeleton, Wood’s comment rings louder, as scientists now believe ancestors of humans have been walking upright for over four million years.

Wood, an instructor at Mount Royal University (MRU), has always loved walking and hiking. For years, he used to take the bus to the Mount Royal campus in the mornings and then walk back to his home in Eau Claire in the afternoons, roughly an hour-and-10-minute trek.  

“Now I live in Lethbridge and drive. It’s a little too far to walk,” he says, laughing. Still, he makes sure to incorporate an 80-minute stroll into his daily routine.  

“Obviously it’s exercise, weight maintenance and good for cardiovascular health,” Wood says. “It’s also a time to both decompress and reflect, and from my point of view, walking is almost philosophical.”

A 2005 Statistics Canada report suggested that during a typical week, 41 per cent of Canadians, or 10.8 million people, spent less than one hour walking to get to school or work or to do errands. A 2009 Stats Canada report says 48 per cent of Canadians were not “moderately active,” equivalent to walking at least 30 minutes a day, in their leisure time.

Yet research abounds suggesting that walking regularly can benefit both the body and the mind.

According to Ashley Jensen, because walking doesn’t require special equipment and each individual can choose his or her own pace, “it’s an easy and economical way to improve your overall quantity of activity in a day.”

Jensen is a certified exercise physiologist and an outreach co-ordinator with Be Fit for Life, a provincial program that promotes active lifestyles.

“With all activity our brains and our body muscles respond every time you challenge them a bit more,” she says. “They become stronger and more efficient.”

In 2009, a team of Alberta researchers led by Dr. Marc Poulin set out to prove just that. They hoped to show that people who are physically active have better blood flow to their brain, and as a result are more likely to have improved mental function.

Poulin and his team looked at 42 women, with an average age of 65 years, who were either inactive or engaged in regular aerobic activity, such as walking or running on a treadmill.

When compared, the active group had a five per cent higher response in the brain during physical activity and a 10 per cent better brain function during cognitive tests.

Similarly, researchers at the University of Illinois conducted tests in 2004 to prove that cardiovascular fitness can offset declines in cognitive performance. Using animal models, their research showed that aerobic training increases cortical capillary supplies, the number of synaptic connections and the development of new neurons. The result is a more efficient, plastic and adaptive brain.

Researchers have also studied walking in relation to children and come up with promising findings. Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, suggests that cognitive function of kids can be impacted by as little as 20 minutes of exercise. In fact, a study of a group of children showed a 20 per cent rise in test scores after a short walk compared to scores before walking.

The mental benefits, however, extend beyond just increased mental acuity. Judy Martin, executive director of the Calgary region of the Canadian Mental Health Association, describes how walking can also provide an increased ability to cope with stress and relieve symptoms of depression.

“Walking alone and having some quiet time is psychologically good for you,” she says. “It allows you to have some quiet contemplative time and you can think through things, find perspective in that, and enjoy peace and quiet from this busy world.”

She also adds that walking can improve one’s mood, citing the release of neurotransmitters that make us feel better, such as endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.

Dr. P.K. Doyle-Baker, an exercise physiologist and associate professor in the faculty of kinesiology at the University of Calgary, brings up yet another benefit of walking:

“If you adhere to an hour a day of walking, it’s associated with cutting your risk of heart disease, breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes, stroke and several other diseases.”

Doyle-Baker points out that you don’t have to walk fast to get those benefits:

“Anything above two miles per hour [3.2 kilometres per hour] will result in benefits.”

As someone who has walked to work as long as she can remember, Doyle-Baker also relates that while people often focus on improved cardiovascular function from the activities they do, it’s important to recognize that walking has mental, emotional and even spiritual benefits.

“Maybe we don’t make connections on how pieces of our anatomy actually benefit from the outcome of mental health as often we should,” she says. “Walking back and forth to work for me, I think of that as my time for mental clarity...walking is cathartic.”  

Similarly, Jim Wood relates how walking has helped him work around issues in his life, including two master’s theses. He regularly advocates walking in his teaching as a way for students to find a sense of purpose in their projects.

Interestingly, many of the world’s renowned philosophers, scientists and artists incorporated walking into their daily routine. Henry David Thoreau, Albert Einstein, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway, C.S. Lewis, Vincent Van Gogh, and J.D. Salinger were all avid walkers.  

Charles Darwin is said to have gone on as many as three walks a day.

“To the degree that I’ve ever had any, many of my great thoughts – at least in a relative sense – have come through walking,” says Wood.

Editor's note: This story was updated Nov. 12, 2010.