Photo by Shutterstock

Photo by Shutterstock

It’s something that you do every day without giving it a moment’s thought. Most of us treat walking as a necessity, a mode of transportation or a way to cut some calories.

But philosophers and scientists agree — the simple act of walking can do wonders for the mind.

In a recent podcast, Sasha Weiss, a literary editor at The New Yorker, went on a walk around Manhattan with the writer and commentator Adam Gopnik. They discuss the art of pedestrianism — or, simply, walking — and reminisce about the 1980s, a time when Mr. Gopnik would explore New York’s grid of streets, encountering the long-lost world of mafiosos, circus artists and now forgotten landmarks.

“One of the pleasures of walking in New York is that it randomizes the grid,” says Mr. Gopnik. When you step in to a taxi, bus or subway, you go only straight up, down or across. “Vertical or horizontal, those are the two axes that dominate our life.”

But when you’re on foot, he says, you can go anywhere you wish, “and that feeling of randomizing your own existence is, I think, incredibly rich and welcome.”

The podcast is an accompaniment to “Heaven’s Gaits, ” a piece in The New Yorker by Mr. Gopnik on walking. In the essay, Mr. Gopnik discusses two new books on the pedestrian: one that explores the history of competitive walking, which was a popular spectator sport in the United States in the Civil War era (the premise of which is basically “walk until you drop”), and another about the philosophy of walking.

There are different types of urban walking. The classic 19th-century Parisian walker was called a “flâneur,” and to be a flâneur, Mr. Gopnik says in the podcast, “is to be in a floating state, where you are spiritually at least two feet off the ground, where you are able to observe, but don’t feel compelled to connect.” Walking is the Western form of meditation, Mr. Gopnik writes of this Parisian, contemplative style.

In New York, however, even the solitary walker never contemplates the world alone. “Walking, even without companions, can still be an expression of companionship, of expansive connection,” writes Mr. Gopnik. It’s “a happy opening out to an enlarged civic self rather than a narrowing down to a contemplative inner one.”

A recent study published in the journal Preventive Medecine found that people who walk or cycle to work report increased concentration and less strain. Researchers from the University of East Anglia who studied 18,000 British workers found that a commute that involves physical activity (walking to a bus included) improved measures like the “feeling worthlessness, sleepless nights and unhappiness,” according to The Telegraph.

And a quick stroll may be especially helpful if you are a writer, says Ferris Jabr at The New Yorker. Mr. Jabr says that many writers, from the peripatetic Greek philosophers to William Wordsworth and Henry David Thoreau, “have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing.”

What is about walking that helps us with the writing process, Mr. Jabr asks? On the physiological level, according to a large body of research, it’s everything from simply getting the blood pumping and oxygenating our brains to stimulating new connections between brain cells and the growth of new neurons. 

It’s also letting the mind roam, in the manner of the Parisian flâneur or the engaged New York walker.

“Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander — to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre,” Mr. Jabr writes. 

In the end, it comes down to the moment you sit at your desk. Writing and walking are remarkably similar processes, Mr. Jabs says. Both part-mental, part-physical, in both you are mapping something out, creating trails and paths.

“Walking organizes the world around us; writing organizes our thoughts.”

Can I get that treadmill desk?

Source: NY Times
September 21, 2014
By: Hanna Kozlowska