Why do we walk? UW lab studies how humans went upright

Sound Steppers is part of a national effort called Volkswalking, he explains. It is a big deal here in Washington, where more than 20 groups are registered with the American Volkssport Association. The movement started in Germany in the 1960s and came to the US in the late 1970s with enthusiastic participation from military veterans who had encountered it while stationed in Germany. The sport is about walking for walking’s sake, with the goal of reaching a specific distance, usually 6.2 miles, through neighborhoods, parks and countryside. It is for all ages, although Smith’s crowd mostly consists of retirees who enjoy being outside, raising their heart rates and making social connections.

“For me, walking is about maintaining better health and keeping my blood pressure down,” Smith says. “I also like the group thing, the camaraderie and the friendships.” During the worst parts of the pandemic, Smith sorely missed the organized walks, but he managed to keep a few Sound Steppers together for smaller outings. It was the one thing that helped him not feel totally isolated, he says. Once the COVID-19 vaccines became available, the Sound Steppers’ attendance surged.

The benefits of walking include healthy aging and extend beyond the body to the brain—playing a role in staving off cognitive decline. “Research shows that the earlier we start walking, the better our chances are for healthy aging,” says Carolyn Parsey, a neuropsychologist at UW Medicine’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center. But “starting any time will improve your health.”

A Colorado State University study of older men and women published last fall found that exercise, particularly brisk walking, improved the amount of white matter in the brain. The study also looked at a control group and a dancing group and found the people who took a brisk 40-minute walk three times a week had the most prevalent improvements in their white matter, with brains looking larger and tissue lesions appearing to diminish.

While interesting, these findings may not be conclusive, Parsey says. When it comes to white-matter research, we still have a lot to explore. “But if you zoom out and ask, is exercise going to impact vascular health broadly—by that I mean the heart and the brain—then the answer is yes.” Walking can also play a role in the preservation of overall brain volume, she says. “I often tell our patients that our brain needs blood too, and our heart and brain work together and need each other to be healthy. If we do those good interventions for heart health, we might very well see improvements in brain health.”

Walking also helps with balance, reducing the risk of falls and preserving muscle strength. That’s really important from a neurological perspective, Parsey says. “The last thing we want is for someone to fall and hit their head.”

This summer, the Memory and Brain Wellness Center is taking part in a walking and dementia study out of Oregon Health & Science University. The SHARP study (Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo Imagery) combines memory sharing and social engagement on walks through historically Black neighborhoods. In February, a Seattle team held two focus groups in Seattle’s Central District. The team devised walks with the help of African American community members to focus on people, events and landmarks throughout the neighborhood. “It’s not just walking, but social and cognitive engagement,” says Parsey. The aim is to mitigate memory loss or improve cognitive health.

Parsey offered a final thought—older adults need about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. “You don’t have to do a 65-minute spin class. It doesn’t have to be huge blocks of time. Just 20 or 30 minutes a day five to six days a week will get you there.” She describes moderate intensity as “walking with a friend and talking. You may be breathy, but you can still hold a conversation.”

Mavis Tsai, ’82, clinical psychologist and UW research scientist at the Center for the Science of Social Connection, has built her practice around conversation. On a recent afternoon, she and Falkor, her small white pup, cross Eastlake Avenue East to meet me for a walk-and-talk along Lake Union. Tsai views walking as essential to physical and mental well-being. “We weren’t designed to sit for long periods of time,” she says, echoing her colleagues’ comments. She adds that she uses a treadmill desk. She can type comfortably at a pace of 1.4 mph.

Even better, walking outside and walking with another person can do more for you, she says. Tsai has built a practice around addressing isolation, loneliness and disconnection. “Social isolation can increase a person’s risk of death from all causes,” she says. Walking provides opportunities for contact and can strengthen neighborhood social ties. Simply acknowledging others as you go past or waving hello to your neighbors can bring some feelings of connection. It also might improve your mood and quell anxiety, she says.

Working with her patients, Tsai found that the act of taking a walk opened them up to sharing more than they might when sitting for face-to-face therapy. The stimuli of the outdoors and the work of walking may help them overcome some barriers to expressing themselves, she says.

Walking with a companion provides you with an opportunity to create more meaningful interactions. “If you want to connect more deeply, go for a walk,” she says. As we navigate the sidewalk together, Tsai suggests that we connect with our surroundings by naming things that we see—clouds, colorful clover, a blossoming weed. “I’m noticing this family of ducklings is going really fast,” she says. I point out a thick rope framing a bed erupting with flowers. “I never noticed that rope before,” Tsai says, adding, “There are no rules. We are just getting into our senses of the moment. As you get into your conversation, you have to be willing to be more vulnerable. Be openhearted and self-disclosing.” Then she dives into deeper, more personal questions in order to create a more meaningful connection.

Walking and communicating is certainly something we humans evolved to do, notes Kramer, the anthropologist. “As primates, we’re social and we want to see and smell and touch others. Our brains are programmed to want that.”

While connecting and communicating while walking has not changed over the millennia, how and where we walk has. We’re not built for strolling in a straight line or on a flat surface, Kramer says. We have evolved to move up and down hills, on slopes, in snow. “When you’re out walking, you’re getting a lot of sensory input. You’re feeling the breeze on your face, you’re seeing the building or hill in the distance, you’re hearing a bird, you’re feeling the ground with your feet,” she says. “Walking engages our senses in ways we find rewarding.”