“Amazing Walks” Can Elevate Wellness

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A simple, low-cost intervention that can improve brain health.

Adding a bit of wonder to an already healthy habit like walking can increase your level of well-being, as it’s a simple way to boost healthy emotions like compassion and gratitude, according to a new study by researchers from the Center for Memory and Aging (MAC) at the University of California San Francisco and the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI).

In the study, published in the journal Emotion, older adults who took weekly “amazing walks” of 15 minutes for eight weeks reported an increase in positive emotions and less distress in their daily life.

“Negative emotions, particularly loneliness, have Negative effects well documented in the health of older adults, particularly those older than 75, “said Virginia Sturm, associate professor of neurology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UCSF’s Weill Institute of Neurosciences.” What we show here is what a very simple intervention, essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward rather than inward, can lead to significant improvements in emotional well-being. “

Sturm directs the Clinical Affective Neuroscience (CAN) laboratory at UCSF, where his team studies how neurodegenerative diseases affect the emotional systems of the brain.

The new research was inspired by a GBHI call for research proposals to identify interventions simple and inexpensive to improve brain health. To tackle the search, the researcher partnered with the psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, Dacher Keltner, an expert on emotions.

“Astonishment is a positive emotion caused by awareness of something much larger than oneself and not immediately understandable, such as nature, art, music or being caught up in a collective act such as a ceremony, concert or political march, “Keltner said.” Experiencing wonder can contribute to a number of benefits including a better sense of time and a greater sense of generosity, well-being and humility. “

Researchers recruited 52 healthy older adults from MAC’s long-running Hilblom Healthy Aging Study, led by study co-author Joel Kramer, professor of neurology and director of the Neuropsychology program. They asked each of the volunteers to take at least one 15-minute walk each week for eight weeks. To half of them, the researchers described the emotion of astonishment and suggested trying experience that emotion during your walks.

Participants completed brief surveys after each walk, detailing the characteristics of the walk and the emotions they had experienced. These surveys showed that people in the “awe group” reported an increasing experience of awe on their walks as the study progressed, which suggests some benefit of practice.

Responses to open-ended questions in the survey reflected participants’ growing sense of wonder and appreciation for the details of the world around them. For example, one participant reflected on “the beautiful fall colors and the absence of them in the middle of the evergreen forest … how the leaves were no longer crisp underfoot from the rain and how the walk was now fluffier. .. the wonder a young child feels as he explores his expanding world. “

In contrast, participants in the control walking group tended to be more inwardly focused. For example: “I thought about our vacation and all the things I had to do before we left.” Another reflected on “what a beautiful day it was and then I was going to go see my great-granddaughter.”

The researchers also asked the participants to they will take selfies at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of each hike. Analysis of these photos revealed a parallel and visible change in the way the participants represented themselves: the people in the wonder group grew smaller and smaller in their photos over the course of the study, leaving more space for the landscapes around you. At the same time, the smiles on the faces of the participants became considerably more intense.

“One of the key characteristics of wonder is that it promotes what we call ‘little Me’, a healthy sense of proportion between oneself and the larger picture of the world around them, “explained Sturm.” I never expected that we could document the ability to wonder to create an emotionally healthy little self literally on camera! ” .

The researchers also sent participants daily surveys during the eight-week study to assess their emotional state on a day-to-day basis. The responses revealed that those in the wonder group experienced significant increases in their daily experience of positive prosocial emotions such as compassion and gratitude throughout the study.

Participants in the control group took more frequent walks during the experience, perhaps because some suspected that the study was focused on exercise. However, this did not result in significant changes in the emotional well-being or composition of their selfies, suggesting that the results obtained in the other group were actually due to the experience of wonder, and not just the time spent doing outdoor exercise.

The effects the researchers observed were relatively modest but easy to obtain and grew stronger over time, suggesting that the benefits may increase with longer practice.

“I find it remarkable that the simplest intervention in the world – just a three-minute conversation at the beginning of the study that suggested participants to practice feeling awe on their weekly walks – was able to generate significant changes in their daily emotional experience,” said Sturm . “This suggests that promoting the experience of wonder could be a very low-cost tool to improve the emotional health of older adults through a simple mentality change“.

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