Beethoven was famous for taking long walks in the Vienna woods. According to his contemporaries, the composer always carried his sketchbook, ready to write down whatever inspiration hit him. Thanks to neuroscience, we are starting to understand what was going on in his head. Although he didn’t know it, Beethoven was growing new cells in his hippocampus, a part of the brain that is crucial for memory and mood and becomes atrophied in people who are depressed. The composer famously struggled with depression, exacerbated by the loss of his hearing at a young age. He flirted with the idea of suicide and chose life instead. Sometimes I wonder how much of his decision to live can be attributed to his regular walking habit.
Walking, as opposed to more strenuous activity, is especially beneficial. Moving at a brisk pace is a form of aerobic exercise that produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which in turn grows new hippocampal cells. Exert yourself too much and you push yourself up into the anaerobic realm, which brings different benefits and seems not to pack the same punch when it comes to affect regulation. Studies show that an ideal walking speed for alleviating anxiety and depression is about three miles per hour or 120 beats per minute—the tempo of a Sousa march. I know from personal experience that after 45 minutes of fast walking I start to feel the happy chemicals flooding my brain.
How will you spend your next hour of free time? You can lie on the couch and stare at Facebook or you can take an extended walk. Which choice do you think is better for your mood? If you are fortunate enough to be able to walk, doing so is one of the most effective ways to regulate your emotions. And it’s free.
Walking in rhythm is its own kind of music, and I believe it is a bad idea to walk while wearing headphones. They block you from experiencing the world. It is of course tempting to listen to your favorite tunes, especially since there is no better motivator than a walking beat. But if you use earbuds or, even worse, headphones that go over the ear, you are by definition not paying attention to the sounds around you. This is the same problem as distracted driving. When the iPod first appeared I tried using one while walking around New York and nearly stepped in front of a bus. I had gotten sucked into the world of the music, yet my life depended on successful navigation of the street. My brain could not manage both. It was also embarrassing to discover that I was staring straight at strangers. The soundtrack turned them into characters in a movie; they ceased to be real people.
One way to avoid the earbud problem is to buy a portable Bluetooth speaker, which people hang from their belts while they walk or run. Do not do this. Blasting your music so that others can hear it is antisocial.
Here’s how to walk with music: Take a cue from The Songlines and sing to yourself. Bruce Chatwin’s quirky book is a meditation on walking, music, and the ways in which the creation myths of Australia’s aboriginal peoples are wrapped up in both. A big part of the story is a chronicle of Chatwin’s discovery that aboriginal singing is a kind of aural map—that the song and the land are one. “Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.” The author muses out loud about evolutionary biology and the nomadic origins of our species. Humans, he concludes, were built for walking.
On your next walk sing your favorite songs. If you’re stuck trying to think of one, start with Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. For me, one if its important messages is the idea that the song and the land are one. Plus it has special resonance in this moment in American history.
Better yet, spend your walk writing songs of your own. The easiest way to start is by creating new lyrics to pre-existing melodies. Anyone can do this.
Be sure to bring something to write on when inspiration strikes.
Chatwin, B. (1987). The Songlines. New York: Penguin Books.