The Benefits of Walking
Somewhere, sometime, someone decided that the perfect amount of human activity should add up to 10,000 steps per day. Maybe you use a pedometer or GPS watch to track your steps—maybe you don’t. Maybe you prescribe to conventional wellness trends, maybe you think they are hogwash. The 10,000 steps a day rule originated in Japanese walking clubs in the 1960’s. Did people walk more in the 1960’s? Probably.
Most Americans drive to work, and people who live in cities walk more than people who live in suburbs or rural areas. A study published in 2010 of over 1,000 Americans found that men take an average of 5,340 steps per day, while women take an average of 4,912 steps. This data was collected from "normal" people who wore a pedometer for two days. Not a huge study, but it doesn't have to be. We all know that Americans are pretty damn sedentary.
You know who wasn’t sedentary? Charles Dickens.
Dickens was born in 1812, and died in 1870. From childhood, he was an avid, compulsive, walker. He once wrote. “I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.” Dickens routinely walked as many as 20 miles a day, and once set out at 2:00 a.m. to walk from his house in London to his country residence in Gad’s Hill, Kent, 30 miles away. Ever considered a 2 a.m., 30-mile walk? No?
Almost unilaterally, people conceive of exercise as a task to complete—we drive to the gym, do our exercises, and drive home. We lace up our sneakers, find a good playlist, go for a run, and we’re done. We wear specific clothing and gear to do specific, time-consuming activities that unfortunately, dissuade many people from embracing a scheduled exercise routine. Not that lifting weights or riding bikes or training for marathons is bad—they are healthy/good/clap-clap/blah-blah-blah. We know this already, don’t we?
But aside from our daily, scheduled exercise, how many of us move our bodies in other ways? How many of us walk to the store, to work, during work? How many of us get home after a long day, and think to ourselves, “You know what would really improve my cognitive function, regulate bowl movements, reduce stress, improve my varicose veins, and help me shed a few pounds?”
Walking doesn’t seem like “exercise time” because it isn’t (usually) intense. Us red-blooded Americans like to feel fucking exhausted after every workout, so a nice stroll around some city-planned green space seems irrelevant, right? If we’re not sweating buckets, why bother?
For starters, walking is cheap. Actually, walking is free. You don’t need crazy expensive shoes—you can even walk barefoot if you’re not freaked out by animal feces, heroin needles, broken glass, cigarette butts, and other environmental hazards. Aside from the money saved on bougie fitness classes, walking can save you money down the road. According to experts at Harvard (I mean, how credible can I be here?), for every dollar spent on preventative health (i.e. walking), you save $2.71 in future health costs. I’m sold.
According to THIS extremely credible internet source, there are a multitude of benefits to a nice, brisk stroll. Walk. Saunter. Amble. Hike. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
One of the most immediate benefits is an improved mood, triple bonus points if you walk with someone you love and connect via good conversation. Another benefit, that Charles Dickens must’ve intuitively known what with his 21+ written works, is that walking increases creativity. THIS New Yorker article articulates beautifully the connection between walking, thinking, and writing. Henry David Thoreau wrote in a journal, “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”
Walking increases creativity by changing body chemistry. Our hearts pump harder, circulating blood and strengthening brain tissue. What a beautiful time-lapse flower we are when we walk.
Apparently, where we walk is just as important as walking. A stroll through a forested, quiet area is different than walking through crowded city streets. The former calms us and prompts our minds to wander, while the later stresses us the fuck out. Just one more reason to connect, or reconnect, to the natural world.
The last time I went for a walk, I left my phone at home. I started walking fast, under the pretense of just finishing already. But as I hiked up a trail and let my mind wander, I slowed. I stopped and enjoyed the view. I thought about minutiae—the scrubby cacti growing alongside the trail, the heat, my breath. But I also thought about time—how much longer I should remain in my current career, how many days until I visit my family, how many days are enough, how there is never too much time. How audacious it is to parse our lives into days and hours and minutes and years and act as if we have conquered them, by parsing them. By the time I reached the final leg of my journey, turning onto a busy street, I felt calm, a feeling that does not come easily to me. Walkers, might be on to something.