Learning Curves: The Cognitive Benefits of a Walk in the Park

Posted by | Aug 5, 2012

We have all been given the advice to take a break and go for a walk when we are putting in long hours, or feeling the stress of our workload. Turns out that a walk in the park may have even more beneficial results than we thought. Beyond helping us improve our physical fitness, the most powerful benefits of a walk in the park may be cognitive. A study by Marc Berman, a research fellow at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest in Toronto, found that a 50-minute walk in a woodland park improves cognition.

The reasons seem to lie in the distinction between two types of attention, voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary attention involves our conscious decision to focus on something, in contrast to involuntary attention where something grabs our attention. The ability to direct voluntary attention is critical in our daily lives, especially when we live in busy cities, and is easily fatigued. As Alan Logan, a New York-based naturopathic doctor suggests, “A world of distraction is not without costs to mental energy. It talks a huge amount of effort to stay on task in the modern digital world. There’s an entire network of brain activity that’s dedicated exclusively to putting on the brakes, so we can stay focused.”

When we go for a walk in the park, we give our voluntary attention a break, and allow our mind to wander and be engaged involuntarily by our surroundings. Parks tend to be less crowded and busy than city sidewalks. There are less honking horns and traffic lights; the things that constantly force us to use our voluntary attention to react or block them out, leaving us more cognitively depleted.  Japanese scientists in the 1990’s found that a 40-minute walk in nature lowered cortisol levels, improved sleep and reduced psychological stress. A University of Rochester study showed that 20 minutes in a green setting was advantageous to health and vitality. Another study in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology revealed mental health benefits after just five minutes in green space.

Air quality may also play a beneficial role. Exposure to polluted air can trigger lung and heart problems, and chronic exposure has been linked to cognitive decline. Even downtown parks and riverside bike path are likely to have significantly better air quality than busy city streets. The level of vehicle emissions just 200 meters away from a road is four times lower than it is on the sidewalk next to the road.

It is ironic that all this information and research is coming at a time when we are more disconnected from nature than ever.  Even when we take a break, our attention is often diverted by the phone or gadget in our pocket. However, the take-way point here is that when we are overwhelmed and struggling to complete our work, the answer is not to keep plugging away, but to take a 20-minute walk. In all likelihood, you will get the work done just as quickly and probably better.