Why Walking Matters

May 19, 2014
Originally published on May 20, 2014 1:24 pm

A recent study out of Stanford University found that walking for at least 10 minutes enhances a person’s creativity.

Psychiatrist and author John Ratey is not surprised. Ratey has written several books about how the brain is improved by exercise.

He says when his patients stopped exercising, many not only became depressed, by some actually developed adult ADHD.

“A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” he tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “Because it does the same thing.”

Ratey is especially a fan of walking with no purpose. He says that’s when the brain can pick up more information and walking can allow one’s thoughts to come and go in a way they don’t when a person is focusing on something specific.

“When we’re walking,” says Ratey, “We are stimulating the brain in many, many ways.”

Interview Highlights: John J. Ratey

What walking does for our brains

“When we’re walking, we stimulate the brain in many, many ways, and this then leads to our brain being able to pick up information. The latest article coming out out of Stanford showing that, if we walk for even 10 minutes, you will be more creative during the walk, you’ll have more creative thoughts, and then sitting afterwards, after a 10 minute walk. And basically, I think that what has happened is we’ve turned the part of the brain on that focuses, but we’re doing it in a minus kind of way. We’re doing it easily. We’re not stressing to stay on something, but we’re able to capture ephemeral thoughts that might come up and hold onto them, rather than them drifting away.”

“We’re not only adding brain cells, but we’re making the brain cells that we have that much better. Exercise is a prime mover of the brain, helping it to deal with emotional ups and downs as well as anxiety, tension, stress, and help the brain function better. The more we exercise, the better our brain gets, the more focused we can be, and the smarter we are. All those are facts, not just idle speculation.”

On problems associated with stopping exercising

“Back in the early ’80s, marathoner came to me and said, ‘Look, I think I have adult onset attention deficit disorder,’ which wasn’t a diagnosis in those days. Well, the guy had a dual appointment at MIT and Harvard as a professor, was a MacArthur Fellow, had all the credentials in the world, and he was a marathoner, and he had to stop marathoning because he hurt his knee and couldn’t run his typical seven to eight miles a day. So he said that at first, he got depressed. Secondly, after his depression resolved, he couldn’t pay attention. He was like a a child with attention deficit disorder. He was off in dreamland and would forget things, would get aggressive too easily, ignored his friends — all the things we see in attention deficit disorder. Well, really did have that, and it wasn’t — I put him on medicine and that helped quite a lot, but then eventually, he got back to running and he dropped the medicine, because it was no longer necessary. And that’s what we see at times with many of the people who have attentional issues or mood issues, that exercise can be self-medicating. A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin, you know, because it does the same thing. It increases our neurotrasnmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, just as our psychiatric drugs do, as well as having a whole host of other effects that drugs can’t do.”

On his favorite place to walk

“I think the mountains in Colorado — some of the favorite hikes that I’ve ever done have been there, and it’s just beautiful. Beauty all around, silent, quiet…Those are the kind of walks that are priceless. Plus, you get the added benefit of getting back into nature, which is something that we really are sorely missing in our lives.”

Guest

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JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW, and as you can hear, we have taken a little trip outside. We're here, just next to the Charles River in Boston; and I'm joined by John Ratey, who is an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His new book is called "Go Wild." It comes out next month. And we're here to talk about walking and actually, to do some walking as we do that. John, welcome to HERE AND NOW.

JOHN RATEY: Great to be with you, and it's a beautiful day.

HOBSON: It is a beautiful day. And let's start walking while we talk. And let me ask you this, are people doing this less? Are people walking, just aimlessly walking, less than they used to?

RATEY: Right. I think they definitely are. I mean, we know through history that many people used to take constitutionals and walks after dinner and walks, just like that. Many of our famous authors and painters and composers were huge walkers that would go walking for inspiration. And it was part of their daily diet. And so, yes, this aimless walking, where you're just sort of enjoying the breeze and the nature, is much less common.

HOBSON: And thinking - because when you see people walking nowadays, they probably have headphones in their ears. They're listening to something or they're talking on their phone or they're otherwise consumed;; maybe they're texting.

RATEY: Yes, that's it. People on the street, you have to watch out for everybody because their minds are glued to their screens.

HOBSON: Well, what are we missing by not aimlessly walking?

RATEY: Well, we're missing a lot because, you know, the fact is, is when we're walking, we stimulate the brain in many, many ways. And this then leads to our brain being able to pick up information. The latest article coming out, out of Stanford, showing that if we walk for even 10 minutes, you will be more creative during the walk, you'll have more creative thoughts. And then sitting afterwards, after a 10-minute walk.

And basically, I think, that what happened is that we've turned the part of the brain on that focuses, but we're doing it in a mindless kind of way. We're doing it easily. We're not stressing to stay on something but we're able to capture ephemeral thoughts that might come up and hold onto them rather than them drifting away.

HOBSON: We don't feel as though we have a task that we have to accomplish, we're just letting our mind truly wander as we wander physically.

RATEY: Right. But at the same time, we're more attentive; our working memory is better. We can play with things in our minds better. And I think that's why it leads to creative ways of thinking about things or putting things together, or have a transformative inspiration that might come along.

HOBSON: You say we actually add brain cells when we're doing exercise in a way that we don't when we're not.

RATEY: Right. It - we're not only adding brain cells but making the brain cells that we have that much better. Exercise is a prime mover of the brain, helping it to deal with emotional ups and downs as well anxiety, tension, stress; and help the brain function better. The more we exercise, the better our brain gets, the more focus we can be and the smarter we are. All those are facts, not just idle speculation.

HOBSON: Now, you have seen in patients, and I want you to tell us about this, that patients who stopped exercising actually developed problems, that mental problems that you pinpointed the moment that they stopped exercising as the moment when things really started up.

RATEY: Right. This was an index case, as we say. Back in the early '80s, a marathoner came to me and said, look, I think I have adult-onset attention deficit disorder, which wasn't a diagnosis in those days. Well, the guy was - had a dual appointment at MIT and Harvard as a professor, was a MacArthur Fellow, had all the credentials in the world; and he was a marathoner.

And he had to stop marathoning because he hurt his knee and couldn't run his typical seven to eight miles a day. So he said that at first, he got depressed, which happens to most marathoners. But secondly, after his depression resolved, he couldn't pay attention. He was like a child with attention deficit disorder - was always off in dreamland or would forget things, would get aggressive too easily, ignored his friends; all the things that we see in attention deficit disorder.

Well, he really did have that, and it wasn't really the medicine - I put him on medicine and that helped quite a lot but then, eventually, he got back to running, and he dropped the medicine because it was no longer necessary. And that's what we see at times with many of the people who have attentional issues or mood issues; that exercise can be self-medicating.

A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin, you know, because it does the same thing. It increases our neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, just as our - as psychiatric drugs do, as well as having a whole host of other effects that drugs can't do.

HOBSON: So it really doesn't have to be walking. It can be any kind of exercise.

RATEY: Well, yes. It can be any kind of exercise, but walking gives you something that we need - that motion, mobility, moving through space. All that probably adds creative oomph to our thinking, especially if we're doing it aimlessly and it's not directed, goal-directed behavior. You know, we're not walking down the street of New York to go from 84th to 89th, you know.

I mean, that's a good walk but you're on it. You're not just doddling along, like we are now, along the riverbank - which is, you know, delightful, and nature helps to stimulate all kinds of wonderful thoughts and especially when you're not focused on something, then up comes a lot of possibilities, different thoughts, different associations and all in all just makes for a pleasant day, both outside yourself and inside yourself.

HOBSON: John Ratey, how often do you walk?

RATEY: I walk at least four times a week, on just a walk on the river. I exercise almost every day, try to in one form or another. But walking, especially with my wife, we enjoy it and we'll go four to six miles walking, rather than running.

HOBSON: What is your favorite place to walk in the United States? If I could transport you anywhere right now and you could go to take a walk for an hour, where would you go?

RATEY: I think the mountains in Colorado. They have - some of the favorite hikes that I've ever done have been there. And it's just beautiful, beauty all around, silence, quiet.

HOBSON: I took a great hike once in Oregon, right next to the Columbia River, an 11- or 13-mile hike; and you didn't even notice that you were walking that far.

RATEY: Yes, those are the kinds of walks that are priceless, you know, that - and you - plus you get the added benefit of getting back into nature, which is something that we really are sorely missing in our lives.

HOBSON: Dr. John Ratey, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His new book is "Go Wild." John Ratey, thanks so much for walking with me.

RATEY: This has been great. What a great experience. Thank you.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

And when last seen, Jeremy was still walking, heading west. He should be in Ohio by now. Let us know your favorite walks. I'm thinking of a canal in Washington, D.C.; Topanga Canyon - let us know at hereandnow.org. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. Along with Jeremy Hobson - he's in Wyoming - I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.