Right away, you know what Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist, thinks about walking. His book, “In Praise of Walking,” available in paperback, extols the many benefits of putting one foot in front of the other: “We all know that it is good for our heart. But walking is also beneficial for the rest of our body. Walking helps protect and repair organs that have been subject to stresses and strains. It is good for the gut, assisting the passage of food through the intestines. Regular walking also acts as a brake on the aging of our brains, and can, in an important sense, reverse it. . . . Reliable, regular aerobic exercise can actually produce new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that supports learning and memory.”
O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, points to a lot of studies to make his case in a book that is generally free of jargon, if not overstatement: “No drug has all of these positive effects. And drugs often come with side-effects. Movement doesn’t.” Sadly, my experience is evidence of the contrary.
O’Mara emphasizes the value of social walking, such as pilgrimages and protest marches, which offer “a chance for conversation to evolve in ways that it couldn’t, indeed that wouldn’t, if you simply sit together.” He cites Mark Twain: “The true charm of pedestrianism does not lie in the walking, or in the scenery, but in the talking.”
O’Mara emphasizes the compassion people have cultivated through walking, which should make readers more compassionate toward those who, for whatever reason, are forced to walk, such as refugees, or those who can’t walk well, such as the disabled. He stresses how walking promotes “creative cognition,” and that probably explains why so many writers and other thinkers, beginning with the “peripatetic” philosophers in ancient Greece, valued the activity. The social aspects of walking, of being grounded in the literal sense, come together in this handy remedy: “The spinning feeling when a drunk person lies down can usually be relieved by placing a foot on the floor.”
Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist, is more circumspect about human ambulation. His book “First Steps” tells a story millions of years old, one full of useful if not completely soothing scientific information. It’s inspiring to learn that about 3.8 million years ago, our early bipedal ancestors traipsed about, and that today’s emus can trace their two-legged locomotion back 240 million years. But learning that my lessened mobility could take four years off my life, contributes to muscle loss and accelerates cognitive decline, puts me in a bad mood — all because one of my ancestors, in some dark alley of time, decided to climb down from a tree, stand upright and check out the horizon.
Though DeSilva never outright says it, we humans probably would be better off on all fours. Our backs wouldn’t hurt, babies would be delivered as easily as Amazon packages and we wouldn’t need knee replacements. “The negative consequences of upright walking have been with us for a long time” (we’re talking millions of years), he points out.
But if we hadn’t become vertical, we wouldn’t have learned how to make and use complex tools, domesticate fire, communicate through sounds that grew into language, carry our children while walking — or invent shoes. Imagine a life without shoes! I still have tons of shoes from my pre-fall days, ones I can no longer wear but resist parting with. DeSilva rightly points out that shoes deform our feet — and yet without shoes, and the evolving longer legs attached to them, early walkers could not have reached and inhabited colder climates such as North America, not to mention Mount Everest or the moon.
For Ben Page, a forest therapy guide, it’s not just about walking but about where you’re walking. His book “Healing Trees: A Pocket Guide to Forest Bathing” (available June 29) is a short and lovingly illustrated treatise on the benefits of walking in nature. Premised on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, a calming activity to combat work-related stress, Page also stresses meditative practices that will allow one to “bathe” anywhere, one’s sofa, for example.
His book is full of good intentions and sincere suggestions to motivate readers to walk in nature, but some sentences just don’t work: “As you sit, invite your heart to sit with you,” as though your heart might be at the beach playing volleyball instead of being in the woods with you. Despite such missteps, every page of “Healing Trees” reminds us how separated from the world, from nature, from the trees, we’ve become. His chapter on “Bodylessness” is especially good, as he says that the body is not a machine but “the experience of ourselves in nature, but because we do not identify with it, we have become numb and bodyless.”
Too often we take walking for granted, but we shouldn’t. There are more than half-a-million walking-fall-related deaths around the world each year, according to DeSilva. I’m glad I’m not one of them. So after I put on my plump and padded shoes, my hat, and then grab my cane, won’t you walk with me?
Sibbie O’Sullivan, a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, is the author of “My Private Lennon: Explorations From a Fan Who Never Screamed.”