The beauty of walking

Posted May 31

Mother and children walking on woodland path in autumn (Deseret Photo)

One of my favorite pastimes is the simple act of walking. Personally, it serves as a source of health and curiosity — and on a broader level, it is elemental to vibrant and thriving communities.

As a school boy, the benefits of walking were of course unknown to me. After guiding me once or twice on the most direct route to my elementary school, my parents gave me the responsibility of walking there myself. I found my own shortcuts and discoveries on those journeys to and from school. Walking became an essential part of life, and it has remained so. With few exceptions, I have always lived within walking distance of workplaces and schools.

Our bodies are built for walking. From springy Achilles tendons to long-legged bipedal motion, there are many physical qualities that make humans incredibly apt walkers. Even the ability to sweat through our pores enables us to travel long distances in hot, arid conditions. A recent article in Sports Medicine by professors from Harvard University and the University of Utah concluded that humans are more efficient at long-distance travel than all other animals.

Physicians often implore their patients to walk. Close friends who recently underwent back surgery attest that the walking regimen directed by their doctors has done wonders to speed their process of recovery and rehabilitation.

In addition to the physical benefits, walking helps clear my mind and organize cluttered thoughts or work through problems. I am certainly not the first to make this discovery. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said, “I can only meditate when I’m walking. When I stop, my mind ceases to think; my mind only works with my legs.”

Walking also helps me appreciate things and places at a pace that doesn’t blur. In nature or a bustling city, walking offers opportunities to stop, discover, contemplate and study one’s surroundings; opportunities we miss with faster modes of travel. As a mayor, I frequently walked intentionally through neighborhoods or areas of town, including Salt Lake City and other communities, to observe and learn and collect ideas for action and improvement.

When it comes to quality time, there is nothing like a walk with my family and close friends. Walking encourages the setting aside of our devices, and creates a space for rich conversations that strengthen relationships and build ideas.

There are different types of walking. “Destination walking” is a means of transportation — carrying us from point A to point B. Hiking to a mountain peak or length of a canyon, for example. Or commuting from home to work or school. On destination walks, I sometimes discover better or newer routes. I meet friends and acquaintances along the way. I discover new places. In our fast-paced world, we often use our lack of time as a reason not to walk. I have learned to factor ‘walking time’ the same way I factor how long it would take to reach a destination by car, transit, or bike — and adjust my schedule accordingly.

Another type of walking is “sauntering,” and is one I’ve come to appreciate more as I age — and as my orientation slows. Sauntering is walking without purpose, setting off in a direction with no specific destination and seeing where the path leads. As Henry David Thoreau once wrote, a saunter “should be approached with a mindset of presence, rather than productivity.”

While I am hesitant to make such a statement publicly, I have concluded that walking, whether sauntering or for purpose, enriches my soul. This may seem ethereal and abstract, perhaps even pretentious. But I seldom finish a walk without feeling re-awakened and renewed. Walking soothes me and helps me better deal with the pressures and emotions of everyday life.

Beyond the personal benefits of walking, I appreciate its many societal and community benefits. “Walkable” communities are universally hailed — for good reason. Sidewalks and other amenities for pedestrians increase human interaction, property values and economic vitality. A streetscape designed with walking in mind creates a common space that joins people of different ages, classes, ethnicities and religions, bringing a collective vibrancy to a community.

Walking and walkability also deliver positive environmental impacts by decreasing harmful automobile emissions and roadway congestion.

Of the many philosophers who have extolled the virtues of walking, Frederic Gros offers an eloquent summary that best captures this favorite pastime of mine. “Walking,” he said, is “exploring the mystery of presence. Presence to the world, to others and to yourself. … You discover when you walk that it emancipates you from space and time, from speed."


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