Why Walking Makes Us Feel Good

iStock / iStock

Need a reason to get up from your desk? Scientists say each step we take sends a boost of blood to our brains, making us feel sharper and better overall. The research will be presented today at the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting in Chicago.

It’s no secret that exercise makes us happy. It raises our heart rates and floods our bodies with feel-good hormones. But until quite recently, scientists had not considered its effect on the flow of blood to the brain, or how that flow might affect our state of mind.

Researchers at New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) began by studying the hemodynamic (blood-moving) effects of pedaling a bike, then looked at running. They found that both activities increased cerebral blood flow, as the impact of each footstep on the ground or pedals squeezed athletes’ arteries, sending a pulse of blood to the brain. The effect was especially pronounced in runners, whose feet hit the ground hard.

The scientists wondered if the same might be true of walking, with its relatively gentle footfalls. They hooked 12 healthy young volunteers up to heart monitors and ultrasound machines, then set them walking on a treadmill.

Sure enough, even a casual stroll boosted blood flow to the volunteers’ brains. The effect was significant, somewhere between the low-impact ride of cycling and running’s hard steps.

"What is surprising is that it took so long for us to finally measure these obvious hydraulic effects on cerebral blood flow," first author Ernest Greene said in a statement. "There is an optimizing rhythm between brain blood flow and ambulating. Stride rates and their foot impacts are within the range of our normal heart rates (about 120/minute) when we are briskly moving along."

The authors believe these boosts of blood—and therefore oxygen—to the brain may help clear our heads and lead to an “overall sense of wellbeing during exercise.”