Walking has become the default mode of exercise. If going outside to walk is not convenient, then a walking treadmill is available for year-round use. You will get nowhere, but you will use up calories. We are exhorted to walk to lose weight, to avoid gaining weight, to refresh our minds, to unstiffen our muscles. As someone whose steps per day are counted by an app on my cell phone, I am pleased when my daily walking miles increase. “Look at all the calories I am using up!“ I think when a congratulatory computer-generated message appears on the phone.
But before walking was reserved for burning calories, it used to be the predominant way of reaching a destination. Those who still depend on walking, rather than a car or public transportation, often find it a more efficient and cost-effective way of getting somewhere. When the roads are clogged with traffic, it is a delight to realize that walking to a destination is faster than driving. And in some situations like a mall, museum or zoo, walking is the only option other than a wheelchair. Tour buses get drive a sightseeing group to the ancient castle or botanical garden, but seeing it requires legs not wheels.
However, there is an aspect to walking that seems to have been forgotten or disregarded in an attempt to make more people move more. Walking is good for the mind, for thinking, daydreaming, and becoming aware of the details of our environment. Indeed, those who meditate sometimes do a walking meditation in which the body, breathing, and mind become one. Usually too impatient to contemplate anything but a robust pace while walking, recently I have been forced to slow down because of my dog. He is almost blind due to a genetic problem associated with his breed. Fortunately, his hound genes allow him to sniff his way through the world as if there are eyes at the end of his nose; but his pace is about 90% slower than when he could see. As I am at the other end of the leash, I too have slowed down my pace.
Our walks have now become a stroll, a leisurely perambulation around the neighborhood. But as the number of miles we used to cover diminishes to a few blocks, moving slowly has the positive effect of increasing my awareness of the surroundings: There are fewer ducks in the pond today; the yellow leaves of the birch tree highlighted by the sun look painted; that trash can needs to be emptied; the moon is almost full tonight; the leaves on the sidewalk crunch delightfully when I scuff through them. Casual conversations with other walkers occur frequently, as I stop to allow the dog to smell his way to the next tree. But the best aspect of these leisurely strolls is giving me the time and privacy to think, to indulge in memories, even to daydream.
A constant complaint of our over-committed lives is the absence of time to restore and renew ourselves. We must always get to the next thing on our list. One of my friends jokingly told me that as she is lowered into her grave, she will toss out her ‘to -do’ list. Strolling gives us permission to forget the list, to stop temporarily multi-tasking and strategizing about how much we can accomplish over the next 24 hours. Ambling gives us the respite from the constant demands upon us. It gives us time to indulge in our private selves without having to worry about how we present ourselves to the world. Strolling, if we think about it, should even make us aware and grateful that we can walk and see and hear.
Exercise is important; indeed, it is essential to good mental and physical health. But as my dog has taught me, sometimes a gentle walk can truly enhance our well-being.