The transformative power of walking
Winter will soon be here, and for me, it is the season where I put my bike away, put on my warm winter boots, mitts, down coat and very long scarf, and start walking to the 3.5 kilometres to work. After reading “Born to Walk, The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act,” by Dan Rubenstein, I feel extra good about my choice of commuting by foot. There are so many benefits to walking, it’s mind boggling that it has not become a national pastime.
In his book, Rubenstein elegantly extols the benefits of walking from several perspectives. He amply describes how walking benefits not only the body, but also the mind, society, the economy, politics, creativity, spirit, and family. I’ll highlight some of these important ideas.
First of all, as Rubenstein states, walking normalizes the workings of the body. Humans were meant to keep active. It is not new news that walking protects us from obesity, coronary disease, Type 2 diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease. However, I had never thought about the thousands of interdependent internal mechanisms that keep us walking, and why they are crucial to our health. For example, our bodies contain synovial fluid, which is a yolk-like liquid in our knees, hips, ankles and shoulders. When we move, this “human motor oil” supplies oxygen and nutrients to the cells, and becomes more easily absorbed by cartilage. Without this cycle, the cartilage deteriorates, and our joints don’t operate as they should. This is but one example of why we need to keep moving.
A regular walking regimen might also be prescribed to ward off or to treat mild to moderate depression. I can personally attest to this benefit of walking, as my morning stroll definitely transforms me from a grumbly bear upon awakening, to a cheerful person by the time I start my work day. During my walk, I might mentally work through some problems I’m experiencing. Other times, I feel a sense of awe and wonder when enjoying the crisp wind on my face, or when witnessing the morning frost clinging to the trees.
Society itself also benefits when cities are designed to be pedestrian friendly. When we have meaningful places to walk to, we walk more, and in turn, we have more opportunities for casual encounters. These encounters help us develop a sense of belonging in our community. Walking also gives us opportunities to see or interact with people we don’t normally engage with in our work, or who aren’t part of our social circle. A walk downtown, for example, might remind us that there are fellow citizens out there who have lives that are much more difficult than our own. It is important to be reminded of this reality in order to feel more compassion toward the disadvantaged in our city.
Walking also contributes to a city’s economic viability, as property values are now increasing in walkable neighbourhoods that are close to useful amenities. Housing prices in areas with a good “Walk Score” remain much more stable during housing bubbles and real estate market shifts. Cities that have inviting, mixed use, walkable city centres draw people in to spend their money. These days, consumers are just an Amazon click away from a desired product. To entice people to spend locally instead, personal customer attention is key to staying afloat in the retail and restaurant business. Most small downtown businesses enjoy the pedestrian activity and offer these important perks.
I will end with comments from my favourite chapter in “Born to Walk.” Rubenstein leads us to consider how a walk with a friend or a family member can strengthen bonds. Many of us find it difficult to maintain eye contact while discussing a painful subject with a loved one. Rubenstein has a poetic way of describing how a walk together can ease this discomfort. “Alongside a friend or relative, or even casual acquaintance, your footfalls can settle into an unconscious synchronicity — an indicator of social interaction … Simultaneously soothed and stimulated by the motion, you are primed to open up, and to listen to what someone else has to say. An intimacy develops — between lovers or siblings or pals, or between parent and child but also a maturation of the relationship between you and your surroundings.”
Wow. I knew walking was good for me, but I didn’t know just how powerful the act of putting one foot in front of the other really is. Now I know. If you still need inspiration, read the book. You will surely be inspired to experience the transformational power of a walk as well.
Yvette Tendick is a member of the Guelph Mercury Community Editorial Board.