Walking Is Making a Major Comeback

It took about a month after Colorado went into lockdown for me to snap out of my malaise. I started feeling motivated for bike rides again, seeking out dirt roads and stiff climbs, rebuilding my muscles and lungs after a long winter. My solo walks got shorter and more sporadic. 

But I still walk with Andrew. On weekends I’ll ride my bike for a few hours, then join him to amble up wide, mellow, forested dirt roads. When we’re walking, our phones are in our pockets, and we’re focused on each other. We get the uninterrupted time to talk that’s so rare midweek, and the topics we cover are deeper: my worries about work, his dreams about the future, our conflicts with loved ones and how to resolve them. We run into friends in the neighborhood, and we’ve even made new ones: with neighbors we’d only ever seen in passing and with a couple our age who we met in the parking lot of our condo complex. They turned out to be cyclists, too.

One evening, after yet another late-spring storm had blanketed Boulder in snow, I went out for a trail run on some drying dirt roads. A couple miles in, my run slowed to a walk.

Without the sound of panting in my ears, the world around me became audible. Birds trilled. Water trickled—I realized with delight that I was hearing the snow melting. My gaze, no longer fixed to the ground, took in the towering ponderosas on either side of the trail, growing in seemingly perfect parallel lines. After a day spent in front of my computer, they looked achingly real. I felt myself becoming real again, too, reinhabiting my body.

I knew then that walking could never satisfy my compulsion to have exercised, because walking isn’t just exercise to me, in the same way that floating over a rock garden on my mountain bike isn’t exercise, or dancing side to side in a cloud of fresh powder isn’t exercise. Sure, there are people who would make exercise out of these sports—who hammer up fire roads 20 minutes at a time, who race uphill on skinny skis in a silent paceline without stopping. I could put heavy books in my pack and tramp up steep trails and get a sweet cardio workout. But why make such hard work of the blissful act of moving?

What if walking was simply a way to spend more of our lives in motion—even if we have other active outlets, too?

“Walking is not a sport,” Federic Gros writes in The Philosophy of Walking. “Sport is a matter of techniques and rules, scores and competition…. Putting one foot in front of the other is child’s play.”

As a society, we treat exercise as an antidote to our sedentary, screen-filled lives, in which we sit, scroll, stress. We dose it like medicine: apply exercise once daily. But what if walking was simply a way to spend more of our lives in motion—even if we have other active outlets, too? In the past few months, I’ve taken phone calls with faraway friends on walks, gone walking to break through writing blocks or to rehearse for difficult conversations. I wasn’t just exercising. My life was happening. 

There’s an idea resonating that, as restrictions ease up, we should consider the lessons we learned from quarantine and take them with us. If walking is something I could only learn to enjoy when I was forced to slow down, and if slowing down is something most of us only learn to do as we get older, then I welcome this early wisdom. I don’t want to keep racing through what remains of my youth. I want to notice the things I never saw when I was rushing. I want to take time to consider which way I’m going.

When I was on the phone with Dr. Rose, I told her that I would like to make the case that walking is innately human. Was there any biomechanic evidence for that?

“It’s true,” she replied, without hesitation. She explained that bipedalism—the ability to walk upright on two legs—allowed early humans to free their hands. This, in turn, gave us the ability to use and design tools, which not only spurred brain development but probably contributed to the evolution of our dexterous hands and our ability to use language. According to her, “Bipedalism is at the root of what it means to be human.” 

That day, I left the trail because I could, crunching through the snow’s brittle upper crust, feeling the tops of my shoes fill with the cold wet and the muscles in my body tense and snap and release, nerves firing in a thousand unconscious places. I passed between the trees, nimble and free. It felt good to move as I was designed to do. The body got a little light exercise. The soul got much more.

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