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Walking and the Mind

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 89 – June 2003

Walking can jog your memory. It’s official. Scientists at the University of California found that the more people walked in a week, the slower the rate of memory loss; and for every extra mile walked, there was 13% less chance of mental decline. Walking keeps the mind sharp as the brain seems to benefit from a bipedal ambulation. The message is: keep walking if you want to preserve your cognitive powers.

The mental decline of the much misunderstood philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche was certainly not due to a lack of walking; for him it was a prerequisite to clear thinking and he practised what he preached. In Ecce Homo, he explains that most of the Zarathustran ideas came to him while walking; how he could, “…at that time, […] walk for seven or eight hours in the mountains without a trace of tiredness”. One wonders when he could find time to write! Quoting Flaubert – “One can only think and write when sitting” (“On ne peut penser et écrire qu’assis”) – Nietzsche retorts, almost indignantly, that “Only thoughts reached by walking have value”. This is not surprising, since he was a vitalist – one who adheres to a doctrine that puts life in the forefront and rejects the Cartesian dichotomy between body and mind. His advice was “To sit as little as possible. Not to give credence to an idea which wouldn’t have occurred to you in the outdoors”. He should have done his writing in the manner of some of the clerks and monks in times bygone – in the standing position.

Many poets, musicians and thinkers shared the walking habit with Nietzsche. Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, Keats, Matthew Arnold, Meredith, David Henry Thoreau, Gandhi, Krishnamurti, William Hazlitt, R. L. Stevenson, Samuel Butler, Balzac, Rousseau, Beethoven and Mahler are some of the innumerable great minds who loved great walks – a bunch of literal walking encyclopediae. The idea of walking as a stimulant for the mind is not a new one. Aristotle used to walk while teaching and his habit gave rise to peripateticism (from peripatetic, to walk up and down), a system of philosophy that upheld his doctrines. Walking in order to dispel the adverse effects of something (to walk off) also has a very ancient origin: in Roman times it was called solvitur ambulando (it is solved by walking). So walking is a great remedy for a troubled mind; it clarifies and stimulates it, but can also purge it of all unnecessary thoughts. Indeed, David Henry Thoreau wrote that his mind was “absolutely free from all wordly engagements” when he was walking, and Krishnamurti said that, during his ambulations, not a single thought entered his mind. That reminds me of Balzac’s observation: “Who among us thinks of walking while walking? Nobody. Worse, everybody revels in thinking while walking.”[1]

Walking is a generic term that covers different ways of going on foot. Whether you are ambling, rambling, tramping, strolling, aerobic walking, power walking, speedwalking, hiking or trekking, you will still be walking but with differences in gait, pace, rhythm, effort, speed and even frame of mind and outlook. Maybe you are a “parfait flâneur” à la Beaudelaire and like to”walk dreamily” in a “objectless, loitering and purely vagabond” Dickensian fashion or, perhaps, you prefer to walk briskly like Krishnamurti. Whatever is your manner of going afoot, you are, as a human being, the walking animal par excellence. And with a long experience at that: the bipedal human form of locomotion known as walking is about 3 million years old, since the time when the famous Lucy stood up on her ‘hindlegs’ and started walking erect.

Yet, walking is falling into disuse. According to Elizabeth Somer,”at the turn of the century, most people still walked an average of seven miles a day”.[2] Not any more. Rampant urbanization and its concomitant mechanized transportation gave rise to a decline of the healthy walking habit. When we are not sitting at the desk, we are sitting at the wheel. Our legs are too often idle and our thoughts suffer from this lack of activity. Nietzsche would not have approved.

Another possible cause for walking’s obsolescence is the advent of the gym, where one can, it is true, walk on a treadmill; but it does not count as real walking. You would think that golf, a fairly recent sport that is now popular and fashionable, provides plenty of walking. But it is a rather poor substitute for a good walk and Mark Twain, with his usual wit, rightly observed that golf was “a good walk spoilt”. Anyway, even the golf courses are now motorized, with caddie carts, as if walking was a bad thing.

But walking is a very good thing, not only for the mind but also for the body. It has been called, with good reasons, the king of exercise. “I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quarters that the one always catches melancholy from the other) I know that I shall have only to call in my doctors and I shall be well again” wrote George Macaulay Trevelyan.[3] Mézières, who was suspicious of sport in general, would advise her patients to walk daily for an hour. A hour of walking a day keeps the doctor away; and, since it’s wise to keep the doctor well away, you can also, to be on the safe side, eat an apple while walking provided you are not “so uncoordinated that you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time”, as the Americans say. Not enough people know that walking is better than running or jogging for cardiovascular fitness and weight control and that it keeps you fit without the risks of injury associated with jogging.

Check if you are in good walking order and enjoy its pleasures.

1. de Balzac H. Théorie de la démarche. Eugène Didier. Paris. 1855.
2. Somer E. Men’s Fitness. March 2000.
3. Trevelyan GM. 1876-1962. English historian and politician.

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