Books

Could Walking Be the Solution to Your Health Problems?

Walking is a simple way to improve your physical health and encourage creativity.

Photo Credit: Dudarev Mikhai / Shutterstock

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the book Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann (Park Street Press, 2006), available for purchase from Inner Traditions • Bear & Company, Amazon and IndieBound. Reprinted with permission. In the book, Hartmann explains how walking allows people to heal from emotional trauma. When we walk, we engage both sides of the body, simultaneously activating both the left and right sides of the brain. Hartmann explains that both hemispheres of the brain join forces through the bilateral therapy of walking, in order to break up the patterning of a traumatic experience that has become "stuck" in the brain.

Walking for creativity and problem solving

"The legs are the wheels of creativity." —Albert Einstein

Creativity and problem solving are psychologically similar processes. Both combine a linear approach—how do I get from here to there?—with the need to randomly access memories and ideas that may, in a linear world, seem completely unrelated.

One of the unique hallmarks of bilateral activity is that it gives access to the whole brain, making walking and other forms of bilateral work/play useful for enhancing creativity and problem solving. Resources and strengths, helpful learnings and experiences that date all the way back from childhood are available when walking, and can be brought to bear on current problems or creative endeavors.

Walking is a grounding experience, a step-by-step, moment-by-moment contact with the earth. Whether by some mystical force or some as yet unexplained psychological phenomenon, perhaps deeply rooted in our genes and stretching back over millions of years of evolutionary ancestry, feeling connected with the earth produces a liberating experience for most people.

Walking also provides us with a break from the state of normal everyday existence. Looking at the same walls, the same furniture, the same place and people often anchors us to a particular state of mind. When we go out for a walk, that state is broken, and new states of mind and emotion provoked by new sounds, sights, smells, and sensations offer access to new ways of knowing and understanding ourselves and our problems or opportunities.

The process for walking to solve problems or encourage creativity is straightforward. Decide on the issue you’re going to bring to the walk, whether it’s solving a business problem or figuring out how to finish a painting. Then, while walking, keep returning your mind to that specific issue, at the same time allowing it to freely roam in the intervals between your internal mental reminders. Letting your mind wander “randomly,” yet at the same time “intentionally” bringing it back to the issue/problem at hand as often as you remember to, provides the space for both conscious and unconscious creative processes.

In his 1888 autobiography, Ecce homo, the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche tells the story of how the concept for his masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra came as he was walking—something he did throughout his life when in need of inspiration. Nietzsche wrote down the core concept of the book during a walk in 1883, and added “6000 feet beyond man and time.” A few weeks later he sat down and wrote the entire first part of the book in ten days.

In Ecce homo Nietzsche writes:

That day I was walking through the woods along the lake of Silvaplana; at a powerful pyramidal rock not far from Surlei I stopped. It was then that this idea came to me.....

Mornings I would walk in a southerly direction on the splendid road to Zoagli, going up past pines with a magnificent view of the sea; in the afternoon, whenever my health permitted it, I walked around the whole bay. It was on these two walks that the whole of Zarathustra One occurred to me, and especially Zarathustra himself as a type; rather he overtook me.

Describing how walking would activate his creative processes and cause concepts to fall into consciousness fully formed, Nietzsche added: “One hears, one does not seek; one accepts, one does not ask who gives; like lightning, a thought flashes up, with necessity, without hesitation regarding its form—I never had any choice.”

Another quick technique that can aid in both problem solving and enhancing creativity is to ask the creative part of you to participate in the walk. This is essentially what Nietzsche did—whenever he walked, he fully expected the creative part of his mind to make an appearance. Although this may sound a bit odd, try this simple exercise right now and you’ll discover how real and useful it can be.

After you finish reading this paragraph, close your eyes, and ask yourself, “Is there a creative part of me in here?” Do it now.

Nearly everybody will hear or sense some sort of a “Yes” answer to that question, because we are complex beings with different internal mental and emotional aspects of ourselves that have taken responsibility for different tasks in our lives.

When you’re going to walk for problem solving or for encouraging creativity, before you go on the walk ask the creative part of you if it will participate in the process by tossing out possibilities and helping you see or hear or get new ideas as you’re walking. You may also want to ask if there’s a part inside you that has taken responsibility for the creative project or problem you’re trying to solve. When that part of you agrees, ask it if it is willing to receive some help from your creative self. Again, the answer is almost always, “Yes!”

Once you’ve accessed both of those parts of yourself and put them in touch with one another, go for the walk.

Walking to create a motivational state

"People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily." —Zig Ziglar

In his 1937 classic Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill shared the secret that steel baron Andrew Carnegie used to transform himself from a penniless Scottish immigrant into one of the richest men in America. That secret, Hill reveals, is to bind a clear vision of a future you want (in the case of his book, a future filled with riches) with a strong and positive emotional state.

Hill wasn’t the first to observe how motivational states work. Three centuries before Christ was born, Plato wrote Protagoras, a story of a discussion between the sophist Protagoras and Plato’s teacher, Socrates. In this classic example of Socratic dialogue, the two men struggle with questions such as “Why do the sons of good fathers often turn out ill [or good]?” and “Surely knowledge is the food of the soul?”

Socrates speaks directly to motivation and results, asking Protagoras, “And what is done strongly is done by strength, and what is weakly done, by weakness?” Plato tells us: “He [Protagoras] assented.”

Following a lengthy discussion of how people are raised and what they learn, one of the conclusions the men come to is that people are more strongly motivated by what they consider close than by what they consider far away, be it in distance or in time.

Or, as King Solomon is purported to have said a thousand years earlier, “When desire cometh, it is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).

We are all, always, choosing between moving toward pleasure and moving away from pain. Every single minute is filled with one or the other: we’re never neutral.

Moving away from pain is the “hotter” of these two, but strategies that move us toward pleasure provide long-term, compelling, inexorable motivation. A good analogy is that moving-away-from-pain strategies are like lightning, producing rapid but short-lasting (and sometimes painful) jerks away from what we fear, whereas moving-toward-pleasure strategies are like gravity—inexorable, continuous, and ultimately a means for bringing us to our goals.

The key to making powerful moving-toward-pleasure choices and connecting them to our goals is anchoring a positive vision of the future we want with a powerful positive emotional state. Moti­vational teachers over the years have proposed many fine techniques to accomplish this—putting up note cards with motivational slogans on mirrors and refrigerators, reading a motivational statement every morning and evening, listening to tapes of motivational speakers regularly—but all eventually bring us to the same place: creating a powerful vision of the future that is bright, shining and desirable.

Using the Walking Your Blues Away technique, you can build and anchor strong positive motivational states. The process is quite straightforward:

  • While walking, visualize possible future states.
  • Select the one that seems optimal and that you want to focus on.
  • While you’re walking, hold the visualization in front of you, at whatever distance or location seems most comfortable and appropriate.
  • While walking and holding this future ideal, remember times in the past when you were able to accomplish similar things or had great successes or desires fulfilled.
  • Allow the emotional state of the positive memories to fill and suffuse the hoped-for future state.
  • See yourself in the picture clearly—how you’re dressed, what you’re doing, how you’re standing.
  • When the positive future state is clear and makes you smile, stand up a bit straighter and feel powerfully good. Create a word, sound, gesture, or posture to anchor the state.
  • Repeat the anchoring reminder a few times until it once again brings up the feeling of success in your body, then finish your walk.

Having done this, you can then put up reminders around the house—the cards on the refrigerator and mirrors with a word or two that remind you of your future goals. Whenever you see these, you then assume the posture and make the sound or gesture that re-accesses that state, remembering your goals and letting the full positive intensity of the enthusiastic emotion fill you.

Over time—often over a surprisingly short time—you’ll discover that you are achieving your goals. Programming your unconscious mind like this, you’ll begin to see opportunities and chances where before you would have missed or ignored them. You’ll find yourself moving toward your positive future as if it were drawing you in the same inexorable straight line that drew Newton’s apple from the tree.

Walking to improve physical health

"Walking is man’s best medicine." —Hippocrates

Walking may well be the best single exercise there is for human beings. We’re designed to walk. Through most of our history, we walked several miles a day in search of food, water and firewood—as indigenous people do to this very day.

Unlike running, walking rarely causes injuries. It is infinitely variable—you can walk fast or slow; uphill, downhill or straightaway; you can carry small weights in your hands or strapped to your ankles to increase the cardiovascular effect; or you can simply walk comfortably and freely.

Not only are our bodies designed to be able to walk, they require walking to work right.

Walking exercises the heart and lungs and stimulates the pumping of the lymphatic system. There are more than 600 lymph nodes in the body; they are an essential element of our immune system. But unlike the circulatory system, which has a heart to push blood through our veins and arteries, the lymph system relies on gravity. Every time you take a step, your entire lymph system is stimulated and the flow of lymphatic fluids increases.

Hundreds of studies have found that people who walk for at least 15 to 30 minutes a day are healthier than people who don’t. They contract fewer diseases, are less likely to get cancer, have lower risks of heart attack and stroke, and have better bone density.

Walking improves digestion and decreases the risk of intestinal cancers, validating the old Chinese proverb that suggests a person take a walk after eating a meal, counting one step for each time you chewed during the meal. Regular walking reduces the risk of type II diabetes and reduces the insulin dependency of people who have already developed that disease. It recalibrates the body’s energy and energy-storage (fat) systems, so the body becomes trimmer and more efficient.

Walking helps the kidneys stay clean and clear; like the lymphatic system, the kidneys rely to some extent on gravity. Walking helps maintain your joints by flexing them and increasing the production of joint-lubricating fluids. In this regard, some researchers suggest that walking helps diminish, or at least ward off, some types of arthritis.

Regularly walking fast enough, far enough, or uphill enough to elevate your heart rate even a small amount will cause your arteries, veins, capillaries, and heart to recalibrate toward greater efficiency. Over time, this leads to a decreased resting heart rate and a dramatic reduction in the chances of developing cardiovascular diseases throughout your life.

Numerous studies have associated walking with a reduction of depression, anxiety and sadness, even in parts of the world that have long, dark winters. Although most assume this is because walking increases blood flow—and thus, the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain—it may also be because of the fact that walking is a bilateral motion.

For example, a study done in 1999 at Duke University found that a brisk 30-minute walk three times a week was more effective in relieving patients of symptoms of depression than either the drug Zoloft or the drug plus the exercise. A followup study found the exercise-only patients were also less likely to have a recurrence of their depression. As Duke University noted in 2000:

After demonstrating that 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week is just as effective as drug therapy in relieving the symptoms of major depression in the short term, Duke University Medical Center researchers now have shown that continued exercise greatly reduces the chances of the depression returning.

Last year, the Duke researchers reported on their study of 156 older patients diagnosed with major depression, which, to their surprise, found that after 16 weeks, patients who exercised showed statistically significant and comparable improvement relative to those who took antidepression medication and those who took the medication and exercised.

The new study, which followed the same participants for an additional six months, found that patients who continued to exercise after completing the initial trial were much less likely to see their depression return than the other patients. Only 8 percent of patients in the exercise group had their depression return, while 38 percent of the drug-only group and 31 percent of the exercise-plus-drug group relapsed.

The Duke researchers were particularly startled when they found that people who exercised just as much as the exercise-only group but also took the antidepressant drug had a much harder time shaking their depression. “Researchers were surprised,” said the Duke University press release, “that the group of patients who took the medication and exercised did not respond as well as those who only exercised.”

While nobody is sure why taking an antidepressant pill with exercise would dramatically reduce the effectiveness of exercise to relieve depression (and the pill wasn’t as effective, either), one possibility is that when a person is on an antidepressant medication, they’re less likely to be thinking of the issues at the core of their depression. (This is one of the things that antidepressants do, after all—they “push away” painful thoughts.) Therefore, when the bilateral exercise was engaged in by the exercise-and-drug group, they didn’t mentally or emotionally have the “issues in need of processing” easily “available” to be chewed up and digested by the bilaterality of the exercise.

There is virtually no downside to walking, as long as your doctor says you’re in a condition that allows for it. And to gain these benefits, walking need not be strenuous or time consuming. Walking an approximate mile—15 minutes a day—just three to five times a week produces measurable improvements in nearly all the indices previously mentioned.

Depending on whether you walk in the country, the suburbs or the city, walking also reconnects us with the natural world and with our fellow human beings. Regularly walking with your spouse, children or a friend is a great way to maintain connections and to spend some time together.

There’s even evidence that conditions such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) benefit from walking—or at least from spending time outdoors, which virtually requires walking, as opposed to indoor activities such as basketball and weightlifting. In a study published in the September 2004 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, the authors noted that for children diagnosed with ADHD, being outside part of every day significantly reduced the symptoms of ADHD. As the study’s abstract said: “In this national nonprobability sample, green outdoor activities reduced symptoms [of ADHD] significantly more than did activities conducted in other settings, even when activities were matched across settings. Findings were consistent across age, gender, and income groups; community types; geographic regions; and diagnoses.”

Fish swim, birds fly, humans walk. Start walking today!

This is the fourth of a multi-part serialization of the book Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann, available for purchase from Inner Traditions • Bear & Company, Amazon and IndieBound. Copyright © 2006 by Thom Hartmann. For more information, visit the Inner Traditions • Bear & Company website or the Inner Traditions • Bear & Company Facebook page.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of over 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.