Even when exams were only a week away, I always had half an hour to spare outside, stretching my legs and getting some fresh air. Throughout high school, walking was almost as important as chocolate and caffeine.
But not for everyone. Most of my peers just tried to glue themselves to their desks for as long as possible, chugging down energy drinks. I admired their stamina, but even the teachers advised us to take a stroll every now and then. “Active bodies, active brains,” they said.
It turns out they were right.
The human body is not designed to sit for seven hours a day—which is exactly what 85% of the world population does. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 2 million deaths per year are attributed to physical inactivity. Medical studies have published weight gain, indigestion, bowel issues, weakened spine, higher blood pressure, increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer as the most common health risks of the sedentary lifestyle. Its effect on our minds is even more alarming. According to one study, lack of movement leads to a lack of blood and oxygen circulation to our brains, which negatively influences the HPA axis, the part of the brain associated with mood control, stress response, and motivation. This means that lack of exercise increases the risk for depression and lowers our brain efficiency.
So what do we do?
We all know that walking is one way to lose weight, but did you know that calorie burn is just a part of the story? Walking not only burns calories but also reduces our craving for sugar, effectively lowering our sugar intake. Walking counteracts the “obesity gene” by cutting its effect on our body weight by half. According to British Medical Journals, walking also boosts our immune system. By the end of a 12-week aerobic exercise experiment on a five-day weekly workout schedule, adults with upper respiratory tract infection (URTI; respiratory symptoms such as nose blockage, sore throat, coughing) showed a 43% decrease in the number of days they carried the symptoms. And of course, there’s the reduced risk of lung disease, heart attack, breast cancer, diabetes, and arthritis.
Walking also improves our mental health. An active period of exercise causes more blood and oxygen to circulate to our brain. This positively influences the HPA axis to improve our mood by reducing anxiety, negativity, depression, and social withdrawal, leading to an overall boost in our self-esteem. With all the social and academic pressure we face, walking could be an important part of stress management for college students.
But perhaps the most intriguing perk of walking is that it boosts brain power, in not only one but three ways. For college students who are constantly studying and generating ideas for various essays and projects, walking may be the key to opening the goldmine of our minds.
First, walking unleashes our creativity. And it’s not just about poets getting inspiration from trees and flowers outdoors, but an actual change in the way we think while we walk. A Stanford University study revealed that people who walked outdoors or indoors (on treadmills) during creativity tasks all marked a higher performance than those who sat outdoors or indoors during tasks. For example, when given a set of objects and asked to think of alternative uses for them, people’s creative output (judged by the originality of their answers within their group) increased by 60% when they brainstormed while walking instead of sitting.
Second, exercise promotes brain development. Studies have found that when we exercise, our bodies produce a protein called FNDC5 and release it into our bloodstream. This process stimulates the production of yet another protein called BDNF, which prompts our bodies to grow new nerves and helps existing brain cells to survive. In other words, walking could literally strengthen our brains.
Last but not least, exercise improves concentration. Intense physical activity causes blood to flow to the brain, which then fires up the neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical for learning. Indeed, researchers have found that just twenty minutes of exercise before studying can help us to focus better on learning tasks.
Luckily for Yonsei University students, our school opens various Physical Education classes every semester, such as “Body for Life,” “Pickleball,” and “Line Dance,” all of which promotes stimulating physical activity for desk-fatigued students every week. Students who took these classes have reportedly developed a habit of regular exercise, and have felt their bodies become stronger and healthier.
But if a whole semester of workout classes seems too much for you, there is still a way to gain surprisingly much with surprisingly little effort. Thirty minutes of moderately brisk walking three days a week should be enough to give you all the health benefits mentioned above. Now here’s a tip: you can always break it up into three ten-minute walks without losing any of its effects. If not even thirty minutes, then fifteen or even ten minutes a day are also helpful.
Just remember: the more the better, but always better than none.