For too many years, our trip to work was just over two to three blocks. It allowed no time for reflection, listening to an interesting news program, or planning for the day. But over the past decade, we have been on the road at least once a week for a couple hours – country roads, not packed city freeways.
It is time we treasure. It is a time of daydreaming, problem-solving, and discovery. This past week we listened to a program on the joys and benefits of walking on the NPR program 1A hosted by Jen White.
Among her guests was Shane O’Meara, a professor of clinical brain research at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of “In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good for Us.”
When a person sits, O’Meara told White, the body is lazy. The brain isn’t doing a great deal of work other than focusing on the task in front of your eyes. “But when you stand up, lots of things have to happen, and lots of challenges are imposed on the body,” he says.
First, you make the decision to stand with that decision and action coming from the brain. “We don’t move from our feet up. We move from our head down,” O’Meara says. “And once a person gets up, everything in their body begins to change. Rhythms that were previously quiet suddenly come to life. Parts of the body that were previously quiescent suddenly spring to life. Everything changes about how you pay attention and how you process information. All of your senses are sharpened.”
Humans evolved as a social, walking species, O’Meara says. Tribes and families, in groups, walked through much of our history. Even when horses were domesticated, many people still walked. We’ve seen the paintings of horse-drawn covered wagons heading across the prairies of America as it was settled in the 1800s with people walking alongside those wagons.
That walking in groups attuned people to one another, he says. When we walked, our senses were taking in our surroundings, assessing potential dangers and opportunities for food and shelter.
Walking as a group requires people to synchronize their behavior. Pace, breathing, and distance from one another are all subconsciously established, blurring the sense of self in favor of the group. It is an action that makes people feel good, he says.
At its core, walking is a life-affirming, life-giving activity, O’Meara said. When you feel sluggish, that your brain is foggy and not working, going for even a short walk sharpens the senses. After the walking, a person feels renewed and energized.
In the brain, molecules that act almost like fertilizer on brain cells are stimulated and the muscles of the body produce molecules that travel around the body, assisting in repairs, O’Meara explained. This only happens when the body is moving.
When we walk fast, we increase our heart health. And, what is good for the heart is good for the brain, he says.
When we walk, it deepens our relationships with one another. It builds empathy and understanding. We also create a sense of connection that deepens our relationship with the community when we walk together. This connection grows our sense of responsibility to the community as a whole and to one another. It creates an energy that can help a community get things done.
When we walk in our communities, we run into people, some we know. We say “hi” and make little comments in passing. This builds a connection that has the potential to grow when we run into each other in the grocery store or at a high school volleyball match. We don’t feel quite as lonely.
There are times, too, when we prefer to walk alone.
“Sometimes it is good to be alone, isn’t it? Feeling the stream of your own thoughts,” O’Meara says. A person doesn’t just wander physically at times during a walk but also mentally. O’Meara calls it “getting away from the clamber of what is going on inside your own head.
He then urges us to do something many people are going to find challenging in this modern world: Shut off the smartphone, take out the earbuds, and “lookup, look around and get a sense of yourself as a small being on a large planet.
“This sense of your position relative to everything else that is going on can induce a phenomenon knowing as ‘awe,’ he says. “Doing this deliberately when you are walking is sometimes called “awe walking.” People feel a great benefit from actually engaging in this kind of walking. It allows you to understand that you’re concerns are probably not as large as you might think.”
When people move, walking through and in nature, there is a fall in the human stress hormone, something O’Meara says is a remarkable finding. “We evolved in a nature of landscape we didn’t evolve in an urban environment, and we profit from that exposure to nature,” he said.
Considering the benefits of walking together and alone in nature, more of us should be doing. Are our communities providing those places for us to walk? Do you know where they are? Is your community promoting them as valuable assets to the residents? Do the new people in our town have a way of finding out about them?
How can we improve the walkability of our communities? If we have dedicated trails, are they maintained? Do they have natural features that make it feel as if you are getting lost in nature?
In Minnesota, we face the additional challenge of ensuring that those walking paths and places are maintained throughout the winter. At the same time, it is important to provide places indoors where people can walk. Think of them as an indoor piazza where people gather to socialize and get exercise when it is too cold, snowy, slippery, or slushy for most people to walk outside.
These days economic development is about people creation. A community that can proudly point to its beautiful, well-maintained walking trails has a valuable economic development asset.