Taking a walk, whether in a vibrant cityscape or a lush natural setting, is good for your brain — a perfect combination of physical exercise and rejuvenating mental stimulation.
But there’s a catch: “Nobody just walks anymore,” says Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. “Everybody has their phones out.”
That’s a cause for concern, Rosen and other experts say, and not just because walkers distracted by texting, tweeting or playing Pokemon Go are at risk for wandering in front of buses or falling in ditches. They also may be cheating themselves of the brain benefits of navigating and taking in the greater world.
“If you are out in the environment and you are not paying any attention, you are not getting the rejuvenating effects of the world,” says Rosen, who is coauthor of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.
Rosen cites studies going back decades that show particularly powerful effects for walking in nature. These studies show that exposure to parks, lakes and other natural settings can help people relax and also heighten their powers of attention.
Even coming upon a small green space in a teeming city can trigger feelings of happiness, relaxation and comfort, says Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. And city streets, if they are interesting and varied, can lift our moods and stimulate our minds, as well, he says. Part of the cognitive benefit, he says, comes from finding our way — building mental maps of the world as we go.
If we are looking at our phones — whether to find our route or to capture Pokemon — we may miss out, he says. He cites research that links heavy use of GPS to atrophy of a part of the brain involved in the formation of those mental maps. (A caveat: The research does not prove which comes first, the brain changes or the GPS dependence).
Still, Rosen and Ellard say that if a game on your phone is what gets you out of a chair, out of your house and into a park in the first place, it might not be so bad for your brain. Just don’t forget to notice the real world while you’re out there.
This article was provided by AARP Staying Sharp