Long aimless walks energizes mind, body
I like to walk. And I walk a lot. Mornings I walk with the dog; on weekends if I’m not hiking up a mountain, I walk around a lake.
I like long walks, aimless walks, walks that clear the brain and offer solace from the stress of daily life. And if you get a nice view or a chance to see birds and other wildlife, so much the better.
Of course, like everyone else on the planet, I am often too busy for a long walk. Sometimes I’ll go for stretches where my weekend walks get canceled because the weather is bad or I have to leave town. Sometimes my morning walks get cut short because I’m rushed — maybe I overslept, maybe I haven’t made the boy’s lunch, maybe I have other tasks I want to get done before I head off for work.
The problem with truncating my walk is that it doesn’t make my day go smoother. It makes it harder.
I seem to always forget what I learned long ago: that taking a good, long walk doesn’t steal away time. It actually seems to make time.
I figured that out again last weekend, after a particularly stressful week that contained several shortened morning walks.
Saturday morning, the dog and I got back to routines, walking our used-to-be-typical three miles, and I remembered what I used to know. I can stew for the first mile or so, going over the pressures of the week — my own or others’ problems. I can rerun difficult conversations, run down the list of things I should have gotten done, make new lists of pressing things I need to do, right away.
But soon enough, all the stewing and grinding evaporates. I don’t even notice it happening. Suddenly I see birds and the way the trees are starting to leaf out. I’m chatting with the dog, singing to myself, thinking up all kinds of fine ideas and fun projects, even smiling.
How does that happen?
Early this month the BBC Magazine had a long piece about the death of “purposeless” walking.
The premise was that we don’t take the time to enjoy the aimless leisure of walking. Not walking to get from the car to the store, but walking for the sake of walking — to clear the brain or move our legs.
Dog walking is like that. So is hiking — what could be more aimless than walking up a mountain only to walk back down again?
Long, purposeless walks increase not only health and fitness, but creativity. Walking — the simple placing of one foot in front of the other — is both deliberate enough and mindless enough that it frees the brain to start working.
At least that’s the theory of Geoff Nicholson, who wrote a book called “The Lost Art of Walking.”
“There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively,” Nicholson told the BBC.
Lots of great writers were great walkers: Thoreau and Dickens, Wordsworth, Orwell and Nabokov.
Wordsworth’s poetry, the BBC notes “is inextricably bound up with tramping in the Lake District. Drinking in the stark beauty. Getting lost in his thoughts.”
When I walk alone, I get lost in thought, as long as I walk far enough. On a daylong hike, even with other people, there are always long periods of silence where the tromping of feet leads to reverie.
But even in groups where more conversation is happening, something creative is triggered during a walk. Sometimes it’s just opening your eyes to the way the light hits the trees, or noticing the wildflowers underfoot in enough detail to draw them later.
And even on the talkiest walks, something new happens.
My neighbor is game enough to join me in my weekly 7-plus mile romps around the lake. We tend to talk while we walk rather than lose ourselves in our private thoughts, but we almost always come up with new ideas and plans while we are talking. Call it communal creativity.
When we get back home, it doesn’t feel like we’ve wasted a few hours. We’re both energized enough to take on all kinds of projects, and sharp enough to solve daily problems.
Walking opens doors. Open yours, and step outside.
Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.
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