The pedestrian, even in his ambling speed, is of the most undaunted and dignified of people — gentlemen of the road searching for nothing but enjoyment in their deliberate wanderings. They walk for pleasure, never in a hurry and are completely happy in the company of their own mind. People in this age are too distracted with obligatory engagement to acknowledge, or even remember, how life once moved at a comfortable pace. The simple pleasure of promenading down sidewalks without a care in the world has become an endangered human activity. Whatever happened to walking?
Well, let’s just say technology happened. Faster modes of transportation were conceived to compensate for the speed of life increasing with each passing decade. Traveling slow became frowned upon as there were "things to do" and "places to be". The word "pedestrian" grew into an adjective for mocking anything lacking inspiration or excitement. Such things as a car in every garage, moving walkways, and self-balancing personal transporters can shuttle people around without them hardly needing to lift a leg. But are these technological marvels a good thing?
Consider how the majority of adults in America have hearts as healthy as a plate of Big Macs with extra cheese, all peppered with sugar sprinkles, then deep fried and chocolate covered, and with a soup bowl of Ranch dressing for dipping. Eating Calorie-Rich And Processed (CRAP) foods and committing to a sedentary lifestyle are the reasons for our despair, but there are two uncomplicated remedies to this self-induced pandemic. First, stop eating junk food. Second, start moving. Physically move. Walking is one of the easiest steps we can take to help ourselves and avert Disney's futuristic vision captured in WALL-E that envisions the human race hovering around on floating chairs, staring at glowing screens, nursing sippy cups to the point where our bones shrivel into fragile toothpicks from the sheer lack of use.
The benefits of walking have been known for ages. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, once prescribed walking as a non-pharmacological treatment for well-being and longevity. And in more recent times, the largest study of its kind revealed that walking for as little as 30 minutes a day can have substantial benefits to cardiovascular health and for lowering the risk of early death.
In order to get people moving, the health industry has pushed fitness bracelets onto people to guilt trip them into becoming more active. These miracles of technological miniaturization count steps, measure heart rate, track calories, determine sleep habits, and a healthy list of other motion wizardry that might determine a person’s general health habits. Are they effective at improving health? Eh, that’s debatable. But the formal gamification of walking turns a delightful excursion into a forced march where the only objective is to accumulate steps. All the fun and adventure is drained from walking when it becomes a chore.
Left by itself, the ancient and untainted act of walking is a fascinating journey to explore new areas of the human world, the natural world, and the world between our ears. Walking is more than mere utility. Sure, it boosts heart health and reduces the risk of dying early but there’s a shoebox full of other wonderful things too!
Walks In Nature Are The Bee’s Knees
After wearing the down the tread on your favorite sneakers from skipping down concrete sidewalks you might stumble upon the softer footpaths found in state parks, national forests, and other remnants of the natural world still untouched by human “progress”. In these peaceful quarters, the act of walking is drawn out and sedated by our senses becoming fully engaged with the flora and fauna that shape this unique environment.
In the early 1980s, Japan created a national health program called shinrin-yoku, translated as "forest bathing", to reconnect people back to nature. It was as simple as going out into the woods, breathing deeply, and being at peace. The accumulation of 30+ years of research has shown that even a small amount of time, two hours of sauntering under the canopy of trees, can produce a thicket of health benefits for the human animal:
- Better cardiovascular health
- Helps weight loss
- Reduced blood pressure
- Lower stress
- Lower blood-sugar levels
- Improved concentration and memory
- Less depression
- Improved pain thresholds
- More energy
- Increases anti-cancer protein production
- Boosts the immune system
Running a hand across a tree trunk to feel its barky texture, hearing the birds sing, leaves rustle, and water falling, tasting the clean air, and smelling the wonderful breath the forest exhales — there’s indescribable magic about returning to nature and enjoying it as a complete bodily experience. Anxiety and stress are carried away by the reveries of an older time when man was still cognate of the natural beauty found outdoors and its holistic connection with the mind and body. The unnatural confusion wrought in the noise, smells, and vibrations of city life upset our inner balance and tips the scale towards nervous apprehension. If we can choose to walk anywhere, the forests of today are still silent sanctuaries that provide eternal peacefulness to those who find them.
I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.Henry David Thoreau, essayist and tax resister
Henry David Thoreau urged for a more sedated walk through nature. He believed walking can be a spiritual endeavor undertaken for one’s own sake rather than a single serving utility for transportation or physical exercise. We should all saunter through the woods, over the hills, and fields with the mindset of doing nothing more than being there, present in the moment and enjoying it. And in doing so, we may learn to saunter through life just as casually. When was the last time you walked without any destination in mind?
The leisurely strolls through a forest may seem unproductive to a man of business but to those who know the true value of health and well-being, it’s the smartest investment we can make. But what’s more, walking can turn up more tricks than just physical fitness and a balanced spirit.
The Daily Routine of Genius
There’s a fascinating “did you know” in psychology called Transient Hypofrontality. It refers to the temporary, slowing down of the frontal lobes in our brain, the part that houses the gears for sequential, orderly, and systematic thinking. Under conditions of prolonged physical activity, the focused thinking part of our brain relaxes and other regions become more predominant, allowing the 1.4 kilos of electrified biochemistry to enter an altered state of consciousness where ideas and creativity are no longer inhibited by that bastard of a thing called self-doubt.
Sustained hiking, biking, running, and walking forces the brain to disengage the higher cognitive processes and enter a flow state known in sport psychology as being “in the zone”. The down-regulation of the brain removes careful deliberation and self-criticisms from our imperfect faculties. The body is then free to react more instinctively, thus creating a highly desirable, yet brief, period where athletes are able to perform at their maximum potential. But non-athletes can benefit from this sublime experience too.
For creative spirits, walking is fertile activity. Knowledge, wisdom, memories, bits of information, pieces of make-believe, sparks of inspiration, and other existing thoughts and ideas crash into each other like numbered cubes inside a dice shaker. These ideas recombine into new thoughts, which tumble and turn into even more thoughts. When a truly great idea is rolled you just want to yell out, “Yahtzee!”
All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher and cultural critic
Taking long walks enriches our creativity and bolsters problem-solving by letting the mind stretch out and wander about on its own. Some of life’s most creative projects have benefited, and difficult problems solved, while out on foot. Charles Darwin had a thinking path. Immanuel Kant, Victor Hugo, and Friedrich Nietzsche strolled for hours. Charles Dickens was a prolific walker and had once stated, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.” And so too was Beethoven who walked every day around the ramparts of Vienna while working out magnificent symphonies in his head.
But we should stop and ask a question now. Are these highly productive masters of creativity born with a deep-seated tendency for walking, or is it the other way around? That walking nurtures the mind in such a way that it flowers the imagination like the endless fractals of a Mandelbrot set?
Each time we look into the work habits of yesterday’s creative geniuses, be they writers, scientists, composers, or artists, we discover a daily routine that included long walks — very long walks, actually. The cadence of step-taking is synced with the tempo of creating unusual and unexpected thoughts which explode from the hidden recesses of our subconscious mind as intellectual rewards for our daily excursion. Walking is by far the most favorable activity for hatching great ideas.