Going for a walk with no purpose in mind other than enjoying a spot of fresh air and a change of scenery is one of life’s simple pleasures. And it’s one that is probably under-appreciated, not least by the younger generation.
It was warm and sunny, and I was sitting outside our counselling centre watching the world go by and chatting with a newly-introduced colleague. Young couples with bags of shopping, portable barbecues and boxes of beer shared the pavement with dog-walkers and families with children in tow, all heading in the general direction of the seafront. The good weather had brought out the crowds and the atmosphere was cheerful and good-natured.
My new colleague and I were discovering that we had quite a lot in common — in our personal histories, our approach to our work, and our family background. We shared stories of our experiences as step-parents to similarly-aged children and laughed at the striking parallels in the feelings these complex relationships can evoke. She and I had both grown up in rural areas at around the same time, and shared fond memories of the freedoms we’d enjoyed — unlike, we agreed, the more restricted lives our stepchildren lead today (see ““When I Was Your Age” — A Lament for Lost Liberty”). We reminisced about the Sunday afternoon ritual of going out for a walk with our parents, and of wandering for hours on our own in the countryside.
There was a pause in the conversation, and then my colleague made a remark that has stuck with me. “It seems to me”, she said, “there’s a philosophical aspect to going for a walk that’s different from the sort of activities that kids do nowadays”. What did she mean? I asked. She talked about how, with organised activities like football or archery or swimming, there’s often a ‘point’ to doing it or an outcome to be achieved — being the fastest competitor or the highest scorer or just being the winner. With walking, the pleasure is in the activity itself.
Walking lets us use our bodies in the way they have evolved to be used: upright, on two feet, balanced and in motion. I think most health experts would agree that one of the major causes of the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ affecting many western countries is the sedentary office- and sofa-based lifestyle that many of us (and I’m one of them!) have adopted in recent decades. Our bodies were not designed for this. As a full-time wheelchair-user, I’m in a curious position on this one because I have no option but to be seated, but I’m still prey to that feeling of wanting to get out and ‘stretch my legs’, if only metaphorically and, by extension, through the pushing action of my arms.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Walking takes you out into the air, where you can’t help but become part of the world. It may leave you with feelings of sadness or anxiety if you perceive that as a bad or a lonely place to be, but it’s a true feeling, not manufactured or mediated through someone else’s idea of what makes good drama for the sofa-bound. Walking is not only good for the physical body (boosting the heart and circulatory system and improving bone density, among many other benefits), it’s also good for mental and emotional health, and — I would argue — for the indefinable and too-often neglected realm of what is meaningful in our lives.
What do I mean by ‘meaningful’ in this context? I mean those things that give us a positive sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, whether that be God or nature or humanity as a whole or whatever; something that takes us out of ourselves and towards something greater. I’m aware in myself of times when I don’t feel like going out into the world and becoming part of ‘something greater’, but when I push through that and do it, then I nearly always feel the benefit.
When my colleague and I were talking about this, we speculated that perhaps ‘going for a walk’ is a philosophical activity best appreciated by grown-ups; we’ve both had the response “What’s the point?” from our respective step-children to the suggestion of going out for a walk somewhere! Walking is, for some, an activity to be avoided as much as possible and, if absolutely necessary, to be done with a specific objective in mind rather than just for its own sake. Is it something to do with the ‘goal-oriented society’ we’ve created? Education, business, the health service, economics: they are all increasingly defined in terms of the goals or targets they’ve achieved, rather than by a more subjective definition of their intrinsic value.
Walking has an intrinsic value in itself, regardless of how far or how fast you walk or even how often. Although as I and my colleague noted ruefully, getting our children to walk anywhere at all can be a challenge, and surely more often (or further) is better. A survey some years ago by the UK’s Health Education Authority discovered that only half of children in Britain aged between 11 and 16 walk for ten minutes a day (Young People and Health: Health Behaviour in School Aged Children, Health Education Authority 1999). Only ten minutes! What on earth are they doing for the rest of their waking hours?
Should we worry about this? Leaving aside the statistics that show rising levels of fatness and obesity in our children and the resulting need to increase activity levels, isn’t there also the need to help our children find meaningfulness in their lives, away from the television and the games consoles and the organised activities where you just have to turn up and take part? I’m not saying they have no value in themselves — how could I, when I see the value of sporting activity as a means of reintegrating disadvantaged people into society, something I wrote about recently (in “Looking for Ludwig: The Man Behind the Paralympics”). The philosophical value of simply going for a walk is the opportunity to see and reflect on what is going on around you; to appreciate the freshness of the air, the smell of the sea or the grass, and the sounds of the world going on about its business. In being out in the world, in going for a walk, we’re also absorbing experiences into our selves, which adds to the richness and depth of our life stories. I think we neglect it at our peril.