In her 2001 book entitled Wanderlust: A History of Walking, author Rebecca Solnit notes, “walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination.” Solnit is speaking to the fact that over the past two decades, Americans are not only walking less than they ever have before, but we are also falling behind many other developed nations in the amount that we walk each day. A 2003 pedometer study that was published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that the average person in the United States took 5,117 steps per day compared to 7,168 steps for Japan, 9,650 for Switzerland, and 9,695 for citizens of western Australia. While this study is now over 11 years old, the news has not gotten much better since, and it means that the average American only takes about half of the 10,000 steps per day that is now a nearly universally accepted standard of health.
Image Source: The Jackson Press
The reasons given in studies across academia and the web for the decline in American walking range from a lack of pedestrian-friendly areas in many parts of the country to an overuse of the automobile to a social stigma surrounding those who use their feet to get from place to place. On the automobile side, the National Household Travel Survey showed that the number of vehicle trips a person took and the miles they traveled per day rose from 2.32 trips and 20.64 miles in 1969 to 3.35 and 32.73 in 2001. On the social stigma side, when is the last time that you were driving down a busy, non-pedestrian friendly street, and you saw someone walking? Any stereotypes pop into your head about that person, even for a split-second? Here at our home in Pinellas County, FL, walkers in congested areas are often viewed with an air of skepticism, and there is a stigma attached to their bipedal efforts that causes many non-walkers to wonder why the pedestrians are walking in the first place. Is it because they can’t afford a car? Did they do something wrong and lose their license? And so on…
So, why walk? We have cars, taxis, ride shares, buses, and countless other less energy expending forms of transport, and many of us do live in pedestrian-unfriendly areas. In his excellent 2012 slate.com article entitled The Crisis in American Walking: How We got Off the Beaten Path, Tom Vanderbilt declares:
For walking is the ultimate “mobile app.” Here are just some of the benefits, physical, cognitive and otherwise, that it bestows: Walking six miles a week was associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s (and I’m not just talking about walking in the “Walk to End Alzheimers”); walking can help improve your child’s academic performance; make you smarter; reduce depression; lower blood pressure; even raise one’s self-esteem.” And, most important, though perhaps least appreciated in the modern age, walking is the only travel mode that gets you from Point A to Point B on your own steam, with no additional equipment or fuel required, from the wobbly threshold of toddlerhood to the wobbly cusp of senility.
Aside from the obvious physical and psychological benefits of walking, countless other authors have waxed poetic about the simple act of stepping outside of one’s box of creature comforts and discovering the world on foot. In his 1996 book A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson notes, upon the start of his planned hike of the Appalachian Trail, “To my surprise, I felt a certain springy keenness. I was ready to hike. I had waited months for this day, after all, even if it had been mostly with foreboding. I wanted to see what was out there. All over America today people would be dragging themselves to work, stuck in traffic jams, wreathed in exhaust smoke. I was going for a walk in the woods. I was more than ready for this.”
Having grown up within a couple of hours of both the Catskills and Adirondacks in upstate New York and spending days at a time in the woods, I could identify with Bryson’s sense of excitement as he set out on his great journey. But, and here’s the important part, you don’t have to grow up tramping around in nature to appreciate the simple, timeless act of walking from point A to point B. I am a middle-aged, busy, married father now, and I rarely, if ever, have time to set off down the trail in my favorite wilderness areas anymore. So I have adapted, and my walking has become more suburban in scope, but that hasn’t changed how much I love it. I still feel a sense of curiosity when leading my dog through some neighborhood that I have never explored before. And now, without all of the hills, we simply walk at a faster clip to keep the heart rate up. Walking is my time for thinking. I am away from work, out of the house, and not burdened by any real-life concerns other than simply putting one foot in front of the other and enjoying my time out under the stars (I frequently walk at night). Even better are the times when I can walk with my wife and four-year-old son, as our rambles frequently become an education in sticks, pine cones, superheroes, and the other magical stuff of boyhood dreams.
Even in Pinellas County, with its nearly one million inhabitants, we still have fine, safe places to walk: the Pinellas Trail, a few dozen local and state parks, hundreds of winding, friendly suburban neighborhoods, and of course our world-class beaches.
So, this weekend, when you’re contemplating plopping on the couch for a few more hours of TV, take a walk instead. Put on a pair of good supportive shoes (I think I may know of a place where you can find some!) and prepare yourself to feel invigorated, happier, and generally better all over. Putting one foot in front of the other may not only change your perspective on yourself, it may also change your perspective on your little corner of the world as well.
By Matt LaBarge, 11/14/14