Taking a stroll not only boosts our health and reduces our weight; it also keeps us happy
Walking is one of the most elemental human acts, essential to our lives in the same way as breathing, eating and sleeping. Putting one foot in front of the other is intrinsically linked not just to our bodies but to our psyches and souls.
Solvitur ambulando, St. Jerome advised in the fourth century—“To solve a problem, walk around.” Almost 14 centuries later Jean-Jacques Rousseau confessed, “I can only meditate when I’m walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.” Sigmund Freud described his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams, which helped launch modern psychology, this way: “The whole thing is planned on the model of an imaginary walk.”
But as influential and forward-looking as these men were, they could never have imagined life today, when walking is often seen as archaic—at least for trips longer than a few paces from the parking lot to an office or store. In many places throughout the world, new communities are designed with nary a thought given to constructing sidewalks or situating schools and shops within walking distance of people’s homes.
You can see the effects of this short-sighted thinking most clearly in the U.S., long famous for endless miles of highway and more recently for its inhabitants’ expanding waistlines. A RAND Corporation study found that people who live in sprawling, auto-dependent metropolitan areas in the U.S. are more likely to have chronic health problems like high blood pressure, headaches and respiratory problems than those living where walking is easier, reports Anjula Razdan in the health magazine Experience Life (April 2006).
But it’s not just an American aberration. Green Futures magazine (Jan./Feb. 2006) notes that the average Briton now walks 189 miles a year, down from 255 miles 20 years ago. Not coincidentally, obesity in the UK has increased fourfold since 1981.
Because walking is such a natural part of being human, people around the world are looking for ways to put the step back into modern life. New Urbanist communities— designed with sidewalks, corner stores and town squares like old neighbourhoods—are booming in popularity, not just in the developed world but also in places like China. And the last few years have seen a surge of interest in renovating and reviving historic neighbourhoods where stores, jobs and recreation opportunities can still be comfortably reached on foot.
Green Futures describes how the rundown Dings neighbourhood near the centre of Bristol, England, is being dramatically transformed into an area where pedestrians and vehicles share the road equally. In a plan borrowed from experiments in the Netherlands, most traffic signs and vehicle lanes have been removed, allowing walkers, cyclists, frolicking kids and motorists in the streets to work things out on their own. “It sounds mad—a recipe for mayhem,” the magazine notes. “And yet, where it has been tried, the casualties are actually lower… And when you’ve got it working, more people start cycling, and more people walk.”
Restoring opportunities for everyone to walk not only reduces weight and boosts health, but it can improve our mental health. Penny Priest, writing in the British magazine Resurgence (Jan./Feb. 2006) chronicles how she organized group walks as part of a community project for people struggling with depression and other conditions. “Over the weeks, we shared parts of our stories with each other. I came to understand how being in the walking group helped people feel better on a number of levels—physically, psychologically and spiritually.”
This corroborates what former Bogotá mayor and global-pedestrian advocate Enrique Peñalosa often says. “God made us walking animals—pedestrians. As fish need to swim, a bird to fly, a deer to run, we need to walk, not in order to survive, but to be happy.”