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A Walk in the Park: A Neuroscientist Explains the Benefits of Walking in Nature

New York is a city of walkers. And there’s perhaps no better place to stretch your legs in this bustling metropolis than Central Park. As the COVID-19 pandemic increased our desire to be outside, walking transformed from a way to get around town to a mental-health necessity. Amid a global health crisis that took away our daily routines and regular comforts, Central Park offered the ultimate balm—a place to walk.

It’s not just New Yorkers who relish setting one foot in front of the other. Walking is at the core of our humanity, according to Dr. Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist and professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, and author of In Praise of Walking.

Upright Citizens

Bipedalism (walking upright) is one of the most fundamental characteristics that make us human. Almost all other land animals walk on four limbs; chimpanzees use a combination of their hands and feet to move around, but “knuckle-walking,” as it’s known, is not particularly efficient. And while birds use two legs when walking on land, their spinal columns are not perpendicular to the ground like ours. This unique adaptation in human evolution has, according to Shane, “defined human history.” Bipedal walking frees our hands for other tasks, from hunting and gathering and self-defense to child-rearing and migration.

The book jacket for "In Praise of Walking," showing an illustration of a hiking boot.

“Walking upright makes our minds mobile, and our mobile brain have marched to the far horizons of our planet,” writes neuroscientist Shane O’Mara in In Praise of Walking, a scientific exploration of the myriad benefits walking has on our bodies and brains.

The pandemic significantly altered our exercise habits, but human brains have evolved for movement and people quickly adapted to new routines in lockdown, Shane explains. “People got good at going out for walks,” he says. In a time marked by distance and separation, walking also became a social activity. Not only is it a safe way to catch up with a friend, but walking—even alone—allows us to engage with other humans on a more primitive level.

How do you gauge if someone is friend or foe (or simply encroaching on your path)? “Eye contact,” explains Shane. “People have to pay more attention [during the pandemic].” Humans are exquisitely sensitive to detecting collisions, and looking someone in the eye, whether to say hello or determine their trajectory, “forms a connection that wasn’t there before.” Even from six feet away, we can connect empathetically with others.

Neural Cartographers

The growing need to be outside and introduce movement into our altered lifestyles brought about a bourgeoning appreciation for Central Park’s 843 acres—including its 58 miles of walking paths. This expansive greenspace in the heart of Manhattan gives visitors the space to capitalize on walking’s many health benefits. The physical advantages are often discussed, but walking also positively affects our mood, mental health, and brain function, especially when our sojourns are in a natural environment.

A view looking down the Mall on a wintry day, populated by a handful of pedestrians

“Walking can be central to our sense of connection to other people and the world around us,” writes Shane. The Mall, the only deliberate straight path in Central Park, was designed specifically so that the people of New York could stroll alongside one another.

Shane’s research focuses, in part, on the cells that signal where we’re headed while moving and how our brains register the presence of immovable objects. While it may be the job of a neuroscientist to intimately understand how these multisensory cells guide us through life, we can see them in action during any visit to Central Park. Hiking the Ramble’s twisting paths presents a different experience, for instance, than walking in an undulating meadow or strolling along the Mall, the only deliberate straight line in the Park. These carefully designed landscapes offer our brains a holistic multisensory experience and predictable change—which is exactly what our nervous systems crave. Shane explains that when we navigate a space like Central Park and its varied terrains, we function like the “neural cartographers” we’ve evolved to be.

During the “long walk out of Africa,” he says, referencing humans' evolutionary history, “we encountered multifarious landscapes, [from] rocky deserts [to] green expanses. Humans are naturally attracted to this.” As we adapt to changes in the surface of the ground, feel the wind on our faces, and hear bird calls overhead, our bodies aren’t just visually navigating the environment. We’re understanding our worlds on a deeper level and putting our brains to good use, making ourselves healthier and happier.

Going Green

Because of this, Shane is an avid proponent for increased access to greenspaces. Proximity to nature and parks improves our health and sense of community, and greenspaces don’t need to be elaborate to be effective. Merely increasing the number of trees on a city block or introducing greenery into vacant lots is an affordable and straightforward way to boost the mental health of a community, says Shane, who calls for policymakers, medical professionals, and town planners to make our cities and towns more walkable.

A couple walks along the Lake in autumn with Bow Bridge in the background

To encourage people to walk more, Shane says cities should be designed with EASE: easy (to walk), accessible (to all), safe (for everyone), and enjoyable (for all). New York City scores well on the EASE test, thanks in part to the Park.

Park design plays a significant role in increasing a city’s walkability and building a healthy neighborhood. New York ranks at the top of America’s most walkable cities, thanks in part to Central Park’s expansiveness and thoughtful design. Greenspaces naturally invite walking, and a well-designed park can have the same effect as being in the country, to which Central Park visitors can certainly attest. The Park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, were ahead of their time in recognizing the value of walking in nature, and their prescience is perhaps most visible in the North Woods, a 40-acre woodland in the Park’s north end modeled after the Adirondack Mountains. One of the many ways the Central Park Conservancy maintains Olmsted and Vaux’s original vision for the Park—to offer urban dwellers a reprieve from the pace and pressures of city life—is by tending to the natural environment of this thriving woodland retreat.

“Well-designed urban green spaces can substitute for, or mimic in important ways, the effects of being in the countryside. Parks, for example, might allow wilderness areas supporting urban wildlife, insects and birds, as opposed to carefully mown and tended grasses.”

Shane O’Mara, In Praise of Walking

Alex Hodges, assistant manager of natural areas at the Conservancy, explains how his team continues to give Park visitors the experience of being transported away from the busy city: “The Central Park Conservancy has put a lot of effort and resources into not only the…large restoration of the pathways and watercourse, but also into ongoing work on invasive species, planting native species, and other improved maintenance. The Ravine [within the North Woods] is probably the area of the Park most insulated from the City and is very special to a lot of locals.”

Rustic fencing defines the trail through the Ravine, seen in autumn

Conservancy staff carefully leave fallen trees where they land in the North Woods to provide nutrients for plants and homes for wildlife. Alex Hodges, a member of the Conservancy’s natural areas team, notes: “I think that if we are doing our job in the woodlands correctly, Park patrons won’t be able to notice what we’ve done. It might seem unmanaged, but a lot of care and planning goes into it.”

A movement toward mindlessness

A walk through the North Woods, or any part of Central Park, creates a sense of awe that isn’t experienced on a city street. Gazing up at the majestic trees silhouetted against the sky or meandering along the Loch’s trickling waterway reminds us of the vastness of the universe and nature’s sublimity. Shane notes the transformative experience of a long walk, how worries and ruminations evaporate with the rhythm of his steps, and the enjoyment he derives from this basic human movement.

In fact, Shane urges people to embrace mindlessness while walking—to stop being mindful and instead lose yourself in the beauty of your surroundings. In busy cities we tend to quicken our pace, but within Central Park even a New York minute seems to slow. And when we cross the Park’s perimeter and merge back into the thrum of the City, the positive effects of time spent walking in nature—reduced stress hormones, a calmed nervous system—stay with us.

Portrait image of Shane O'Mara, photographed overlooking a beach

Shane O’Mara takes daily walks in his home city of Dublin, but London remains his favorite place for long, mindless strolls. Photo by Brid O'Donovan

Just put one foot in front of the other

Especially in the cold winter months, after many of our holiday traditions were put on pause, we may need the boost that only a good, long walk can give. When asked how we can incorporate more walking into our routines, Shane responds: “Be obsessive.” He suggests using a pedometer to track your steps, and first get a sense of your average (typically about 4,000–5,000 steps a day) and then add “5,000 steps more.” Humans are built to walk 15,000 steps a day, Shane reassures, recalling our ancestors’ great migration, and it takes just days to adapt to walking that amount and more.

If you need some inspiration, the Conservancy offers an array of self-guided tours that will help you get your steps in while reaping the benefits of the Park’s natural beauty.

A pedestrian on Gilder Run, hidden in the long shadows of the setting sun

Within Central Park’s 843 acres are 58 miles of walking paths. The Conservancy has an array of self-guided tours to help you increase your steps and explore this expansive space.