Walking app popular with students
We’re all going
for a stroll
Before the lockdown in March 2020, Annemarije (23) was running around all day: she’d bike to school, play beach volleyball at the ACLO, or went out with her friends. When the Netherlands shut down, all that fell by the wayside. She was unable to get started on the research project for her bachelor in biology. ‘All of a sudden, my roommate and I had nothing to do’, she says. They decided to start taking a walk every day.
It’s been almost a year since then, but she still takes that walk every single day, either with friends, roommates, or her boyfriend. If no one’s available, she walks on her own. Three or four weeks ago, a friend shared the link to the Ommetje app in a group chat. ‘That’s when everyone started doing it’, Annemarije says.
She’s become a big fan of walking. It’s exercise, she gets some sun, and fresh air. ‘It’s nice to get out of my room when the walls are closing in.’ But the app adds an extra dimension. ‘I love that it tracks the length of my walks.’
The app – which is also available in English – was designed before the corona pandemic started and was launched by the Netherlands Brain Foundation and Erik Scherder, professor of neuropsychology at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam, who also works at the UG. Scherder wanted to use the app to combat another disease that kills millions of people, but that no one seems to pay attention to: the so-called physical inactivity pandemic. ‘Every year, 5.3 million people die of illnesses related to a lack of exercise.’
It’s motivating to see others doing well
People who sit around all day have the potential to develop metabolic syndrome: a combination of increased cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, obesity, and high blood sugar. This leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But you can combat this if you exercise for at least thirty consecutive minutes a day.
‘The brains contain both grey and white matter’, Scherder explains. ‘The blood flow to the connections in the white matter is a little constricted. But exercise improves the blood flow to these parts which means the connections continue to work for longer.’ That affects people’s ability to learn, their behaviour, and their sleep patterns, he says. It can also alleviate sadness.The Brain Foundation ordered the app because of these positive results, and Scherder has been promoting it. ‘But to be honest, I had no idea it would be such a success’, he says. ‘Ommetje is kind of an old-fashioned word, so I figured only older people would like it. Turns out I was wrong!’
Liberal arts and sciences student Yente (18) also takes many a walk. She’s been doing it since the first lockdown and downloaded Ommetje to her phone a few weeks ago. ‘The app reminds me to take a walk, which means I go more often.’ She’s in a team with her debating club. ‘It’s motivating to see others doing well.’
That’s exactly why the app has a competitive element to it. The app records how much you and the rest of your team walk and who’s at the top. Winning feels good, something we could all use in the current situation. Before the lockdown, you’d feel good if you helped someone with an assignment or if you did well in sports. ‘We’re missing out on that right now’, says Scherder.
I study better after a walk
The app is calibrated to make sure that someone exercises every day, for at least twenty minutes. ‘Studies have shown that thirty consecutive minutes of exercise is the minimum’, says Scherder. Since that’s not a realistic goal for everyone, they lowered it to twenty minutes. ‘However, a lot of people say they often take longer walks than that.’
This minimum number of minutes is essential if you want your walk to have a positive effect on your body and your brain. ‘The system doesn’t really get going until half an hour into the exercise, but then it has all kinds of positive effects.’ You can’t just amble along, either; you have to go at a steady pace. ‘It’s a moderately intense exercise.’
Exercise every day
Wouldn’t a more active type of exercise, like jogging, be a better option? ‘Not as much as you would think’, says Scherder. Any exercise that is slightly more intense than walking will have more benefits, but if you exhaust yourself, the benefits aren’t as great. ‘It’s more important to just exercise every day.’ If you work out intensely twice a week but sit on your butt the rest of the week, your lifestyle counts as inactive.
During busy times, such as exam weeks, it can be difficult to make time to take a walk. ‘But you have to get those physical stimuli’, Scherder says. ‘It’ll help you study.’
I hope people discover how nice exercise is
A nice long walk will reset your whole system. Walking activates the areas that help you retain information, which means you can study more effectively. ‘You more than make up for those twenty minutes you lose when you’re walking.’
Yente has experienced this, too: she actually went out walking more than before during the exam weeks. She feels ready to face the rest of the day after a walk. ‘Because I was feeling more productive physically, I also felt more productive when I was studying.’
Annemarije knows the feeling, but she still has to force herself to go outside a lot of the time. ‘But if you start studying early in the morning, you’ll definitely be lagging by 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Taking a walk enables me to keep going for another couple of hours. It’s kind of like mindfulness.’
She thinks she’ll keep walking even after the lockdown is over, although probably not as much as she does now. ‘If I get enough exercise from other activities, I’ll skip the walks.’ She’ll still go for a stroll on the days she doesn’t do other things, though. The same goes for Yente.
That’s exactly why Ommetje was created. ‘I hope to be able to look back on the app in a few years’ time and see that it’s made taking a walk a normal part of people’s day’, says Scherder. ‘That it’s made people rediscover how nice it is to get some exercise.’ And that consequently, after you’ve been sitting still for an hour, you’ll say to yourself: I’m going for a stroll.