Novelist Ray Bradbury, after a personal experience, crafted a short story called The Pedestrian. It, in turn, became the basis for his famous novel, Fahrenheit 451. The Pedestrian is set in a world 100 plus years in the future. Leonard Mead is out for an evening stroll when few others leave their homes. In a city of 3,000,000, Mead encounters the sole remaining police car from which he is questioned. The voice from the car asks, “What are you doing out?” To which Mead replies simply “Walking.” The officer is confused and doesn’t accept the answer. The officer asks suspiciously, “Walking where? For what?” To which Mead responds, “Walking for air. Walking to see.” Our character is not out for any productive purpose. He’s out for a stroll. He walks for fresh air and to see the world around him. No purpose other than pleasure.
Walking is one of those things that is uniquely human. We’re the only bipedal mammals. The Roman poet, Ovid, observed several thousand years ago, “All other animals look downward; Man, alone, erect, can raise his face toward Heaven.” Ironically, when we transitioned from quadrupedal beasts to bipedal ones, we slowed down. We’re not that fast relative to many four legged creatures. Additionally, we became wobblier when walking upright. Almost as many people die each year from falling as do those that perish in automobile accidents. There are many hypotheses for why we began walking though no settled upon reason. The way we walk, our gaits, are quite individualized. It wasn’t only Charlie Chaplin that had a signature stride. We can identify people we know well from distances by the way they walk. Scientists have shown that we can identify people long before we can recognize their faces by the way they walk. The way we walk also communicates. Walking is a form of body language that can reflect emotions like stomping with anger, striding with confidence, bobbing with glee, and shuffling with sadness. A conclusion offered by researchers in a 2019 study on walking detailed in the British Journal of Sports Medicine offered, “Whether it is a stroll on a sunny day, walking to and from work, or walking down to the local shops, the act of putting one foot in front of the other in a rhythmic manner is as much human nature as breathing, thinking, and loving.”
We used to walk because we had to in order to survive. As author Geoff Nicholson noted in The Lost Art of Walking, “Yes, there was a time when everybody walked: they did it because they had no choice. The moment they had a choice, they chose not to do it.” Unfortunately, as technology has made our lives easier, activity levels have lowered. Health has been hurt as a result. Jeremy DeSilva in First Steps notes that anthropologists have discovered that our bone density today is substantially less than it was in our ancestors 10,000 years ago. The gap between what our bone density was then and is now is like we’ve spent weeks in space. Gravity hasn’t changed in all these years. What’s changed is our activity levels. Our shrinking steps were even more pronounced as the pandemic pounced. Fitbit was in a unique position to show us the impact of the pandemic on pedestrians. Their data showed a marked drop across nations of steps in March 2020 as lockdowns were imposed. In many countries, steps dropped by 10-15% relative to the prior year. The timing of the drop fit directly with government imposed lockdowns.
The average North American takes 5,000 daily steps. Over the course of a lifetime, this translates into around 150,000,000 steps. If we’re averaging around 1,300 steps to cover a kilometre, we’re travelling the equivalent distance of three times the circumference of the earth or almost 120,000 kilometers in our lifetimes on foot. This is the case even though our daily steps are a fraction of what they once were. The Hadza, considered the last hunter-gatherer tribe, of Tanzania are considered more than ten times more active than us.
Seneca recommended the value of walking writing in On Tranquility of Mind that “we should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.” Like a cold shower, light exercise like walking provides the opportunity for a quick refresh. Motion is emotion, literally. Emovere is the Latin root word of emotion and it means “to move.” In The Power of Pressure, Dane Jensen offers, “Anyone who regularly ‘replaced 15 minutes of sitting with 15 minutes of running, or one hour of sitting with one hour of moderate activity like brisk walking’ experienced the mood stabilizing benefits of exercise.” Moving makes us feel better. For Dan Rather, former news anchor for CBS news, walking is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Going for a walk was something he looked forward to doing with his wife almost daily after dinner. Rather noted, “I gently recommend it. Just walk slowly in the time after the sun sets and before night descends.” Rather was walking in order to relax. To decompress the day’s stress and connect with his wife.
It gets even better, beyond simply feeling good after a short stroll, walking offers a number of physiological benefits which enhance our mental and physical health. DeSilva notes, “Scientists have now discovered over a hundred molecules that our muscles make and release into the blood as we walk.” This mass of molecules earned a name in 2003. They became known as myokines. In Move Your DNA, author Katy Bowman, an expert on human movement, considers walking as a “superfood.” William Stixrud points out in The Self-Driven Child that a reason why exercise is wonderful for both the brain and the body is because of an overlap of parts of our brains. Our higher thinking capabilities (or Executive functions) and motor control functions are similarly controlled. When we exercise, hormonal changes result. Hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine increase in production which provide calmness, attentional control, and alertness. Stixrud writes, “It’s often said that exercise does more to help clear thinking than thinking does.” The wonders walking offers were good enough for Finland to introduce into its education system. Finland remains the world leader in academic performance of its students. They aren’t all work and no play. Their schools mandate twenty minutes of outdoor physical activity for every forty minutes of instruction. Students are encouraged to play, walk, and generally move between learning sessions. This isn’t isolated to Kindergarten. It’s applicable to every grade.
Misty Pratt, a research coordinator at a hospital in Ottawa, credits walking with helping to greatly reduce her anxiety and depression. In no lesser an authority than a Costco Connection magazine from June 2021, Pratt notes her walks have become daily commitments. On her 45 minute strolls, she’s able to purge pressures that are building. She notes that “walking calms my brain. Its mindfulness—you’re able to focus on the steps or breaths you’re taking.” Complimenting Pratt’s anecdotal experience is a study involving 55,000 North American adults that found those that do some light exercise each week experienced fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a separate meta-analysis of 70 studies, it was shown that exercise improves mood and lessens anxiety. Soren Kierkegaard, over 200 years ago, wrote in a letter to his sister who was struggling with health issues, “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk: every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
Besides relaxing us, how else can walking help our mental states? Researcher Jennifer Weuve and others have found that the natural decline in our cognitive abilities that comes with age can be reduced markedly with walking as little as ninety minutes weekly. The hippocampus is a small area of our brain that is largely responsible for storing memories. It is considered a deposit box for many of our life stories. As we age, our hippocampus shrinks by one to two percent annually. Our ability to recall our experiences deteriorates correspondingly. Those that walk reduce the shrinking of their hippocampi. Jeremy DeSilva writes of a study in First Steps noting, “something extraordinary happened with the walkers. Not only had they not lost any hippocampal volume. They gained some. The walking group, on average, had grown the hippocampus by two percent. Accordingly, their memory had improved. The hippocampus, it turns out, can regenerate, and even just a daily walk can promote growth.” Walking can even work wonders reducing or delaying impacts of Alzheimer’s. One of the myokines, the molecules our muscles create during exercise, is irisin which is associated with Alzheimer’s. Those with Alzheimer’s have low levels of irisin. Those that walk have higher levels.
A separate myokine is a mouthful known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Walkers show higher levels of BDNF relative to others. A professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard, John Ratey, considers BDNF the “Miracle-Grow for your brain.” It helps to grow neurons and strengthen connections between neurons in our brains. A higher presence of BDNF is strongly correlated with larger hippocampi. Closely related to calming our mental state and improving our memories is walking’s impact on our creativity. Researchers have shown that those that walk are able to come up with more innovative descriptions for an object than those that sat instead. Walkers were 60% more creative. These results were supported by brain scans suggesting improved connections in areas of the brain associated with creativity on walkers. Long before our researchers found these results, historical figures have advocated for the benefits of walking. Henry David Thoreau noted in an essay titled, Walking, back in 1861 that “you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” Charles Darwin, too, swore by the value of walking on thinking. Outside his home he had a path which formed a loop he walked regularly. He referred to it as the Sandwalk. Janet Browne, a biographer of Darwin, considers the Sandwalk as the place which shaped his identity as a thinker. Rousseau, a French philosopher, also relied on walking to spur his mind into action. Rousseau observed, “There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going.” Another philosopher, Nietzsche, too, depended on regular walks. He would walk daily for a couple hours around lunchtime with notebook in hand observing, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Finally, author Charles Dickens, like Bradbury’s character in The Pedestrian, enjoyed walking in London at night. Dickens recounted, “The road was so lonely in the night, that I fell asleep to the monotonous sounds of my own feet, doing their regular four miles an hour. Mile after mile I walked, without the slightest sense of exertion, dozing heavily and dreaming constantly.” For many of us, walking allows the brain to wander and wonder about problems. It helps us come up with answers or spurs creativity. Meandering serves as a muse.
Beyond the mental benefits, there’s numerous links to the benefits of moderate exercise like walking to our physical health. The benefits of walking are linked to lower risk in thirteen different types of cancer. For example, daily walkers are less likely to develop breast cancer. One suggestion for this relates to exercise reducing the levels of estrogen in our blood. Moreover, our heart rates and blood pressures are both lowered with regular walking. This contributes to lower risk of heart disease. Those that walk daily for a half hour have reduced risk of heart disease of almost 20%. A half hour daily walk was shown to reduce the risk of stroke in a study involving over 40,000 middle aged women by over 25%. Revisiting our Hadza tribe that move dramatically more than the rest of us, this population has almost no evidence of cardiovascular disease. Researcher, Stephen Moore, through the National Cancer Institute uncovered many of the above findings. He found that the equivalent of less than half an hour of daily walking resulted in a lifespan of four years longer than those less active. The abundance of support for the health benefits of walking lends credibility to what British historian, George Trevelyan noted in an essay back in 1913. Trevelyan wrote, “I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” Walking seems like one of those little things that can make a big difference. The list of benefits is long with little downside. There’s no real barrier to participation for most of us. We don’t need special equipment or access to private clubs. We can get up and go. Anytime, anywhere.
Even though our steps dropped in the early weeks of lockdowns, I wonder if things have changed? Walking does seem to have been an activity we were all allowed to access. In the past two years when there’s been more things we couldn’t do than could, walking remained a relished retreat. Walking offers a way to get outside, take a break, and refresh while making ourselves better for the future. Walking is one of those little things that serves as a rare gift. It provides benefits both now, in the moment, and for your future. It offers immediate pleasant feelings as well as long lasting health impacts. Get out and move about. It’s neat to use those feet. Brad Stulberg writes in The Practice of Groundedness, “If movement could be bottled and sold in pill form it would be a trillion-dollar blockbuster drug—used for everything from enhancing performance to improving well-being to preventing and treating disease.” In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg introduces the idea of “keystone habits.” A keystone habit is a small behavior that when done leads to more positive behaviors likely being performed. Duhigg considers movement a keystone habit that brings about positive changes in other areas as well. Walking truly is a little thing that makes a big difference. Getting a quick refresh, releasing some stress, resolving a problem, stimulating creativity, and longer term health benefits are all the result of a walk. Making a short stroll a daily goal is well worth it.
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” John Muir