Walking

I love walking. The world is full of beauty, and the best way to find it is to wander through it. It's good for your physical health, and it's good for your mental health. It can be an opportunity to relax, to learn, or to socialise. Really, you shouldn't read this; you should go for a walk instead!

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This is another NaNoWriMo-based post that I wrote last week while I was on holiday. Since then, I seem to have been focusing on a couple of longer pieces. I’ve managed 19,000 words so far, which I’m rather pleased about!

I suspect this is the longest pub crawl I’ve ever been on. So far, I’ve walked nine miles, and I’ve another two miles before I make it back to the holiday house we’re staying in. Remarkably, this is only my second pint!

I do really enjoy walking – sometimes listening to a podcast, other times with music and, occasionally, with the imposed silence from my Bluetooth earphones having run out of batteries.

The pace of walking is lovely – measured, steady, mostly unaffected by the landscape – and it’s delightful to get some fresh air, some sunlight, and to see the beauty of the world.

There’s beauty to be appreciated wherever you walk. It can be through the centre of a busy city, along an empty country road, by a river, following along a sea coast, or even taking a short cut through a dilapidated industrial estate. Some are easier to appreciate the beauty of than others, of course.

The city can be busy and it can be infuriating to share the footpath with slow, bumbling, direction-less people. The air quality can be poor. There’s an increased risk of a suboptimal interaction with vehicles just due to the sheer volume of them. On the other hand, there’s some stunning architecture to admire, you tend to be left alone (counter intuitively, perhaps, since there are so many more people), and there are plenty of routes to choose from without getting lost.

(I have a thing. It’s probably bordering on obsessive-compulsive. I don’t like to retrace my steps when I’m out walking. I like to make sure I do a circuit, taking a different route back from out. It’s the same whether I’m walking, running or cycling, though curiously not when I’m driving, now I think about it. I think it’s one of those ‘been there, done that’ kind of things.)

Similarly, the countryside has its ups and downs (pun entirely intended!). It’s full of interesting nature to look at – creatures to observe, plants to admire. The country tends to be calmer, quieter, more natural. Strangers will greet you on the way past. But on the other hand, the choice of proscribed routes is smaller (at least when I’m down in England, which has a slightly less liberal attitude to public rights of way), so it can be tricky to strike out at random without retracing steps, or getting incredibly lost.

Wandering through a housing estate, or dilapidated industrial estate, can feel risky. Do I feel safe here? But they can be home to some of the most impressive visual sights. Peeling paintwork, old signs, or rusting machinery. Or, in housing estates, looking at the variation in gardens, the way houses are decorated or, OK, I admit it, surreptitiously looking in windows, seeing the decor, noticing what people are watching on television. I find this to be some of the most interesting landscapes I experience.

Walking is good exercise. It’s gentle, so there’s no real risk of damaging yourself, no matter your level of fitness. There is no specialist equipment required – assuming you’ve already got a comfortable pair of shoes and, well, clothes. You can walk just about anywhere, which makes it the perfect exercise to do on holiday without exceeding your baggage allowance.

Walking elevates the heart rate. Whether it gets as far as the “aerobic zone” depends on your personal level of fitness and the pace you’re sustaining, but it definitely beats being idle. And it’s unlikely that it’ll turn into anaerobic exercise, which I understand is mostly counter-productive unless you know what you’re doing. So you can burn off the excess calories and stay trim with no real investment other than your time.

Walking is good for your mental health, too. Physiologically, getting out in the fresh air is a good way to stock up on vitamin D. I’m given to understand that vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression. It also helps out with various digestive functions and keeping your bones in tip-top shape, so it’s a good thing to have a steady supply of. Your body synthesises vitamin D from sunlight, so getting sunlight is for the win.

Moreover walking is a chance to think and reflect. It’s a time to re-centre, to be mindful of the present moment. Focus on breathing. Focus on the plodding rhythm of placing one foot in front of the other. Let your mind wander, if you like, or meditate and focus on the breathing, if that’s what you need.

Going for a walk and letting your mind have free reign is a good way to figure out problems that are gnawing at you. Sometimes, deliberately not thinking about things, and letting your R-mode brain have free reign, will help you to make associations, cogitate, and hint to your L-mode brain what the solution really is.

Walking can be a very social activity. Whether you’re out for an afternoon amble with a significant other, tromping across the beach with the kids, or out rambling through the countryside with friends.

(I’d intended the last example to be something along the lines of a Women’s Institute group, who regularly rent a minibus to the Yorkshire moors and head off for an afternoon’s rambling, followed by an afternoon cream tea at a tearoom in the nearby village. Unfortunately, the image it actually conjured up in my head was of Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie and Spud getting a train to the arse end of Scotland with a kerry-oot and a few invectives about the state of Scotland.)

Walking can be a chance to catch up with friends, have a chat while getting some fresh air and talking about whatever is on your mind. It can be an opportunity to learn, or teach, depending on your perspective on the situation. I love walking along the beach – usually plunging into rock pools to find creatures, or sniffing flowers, or picking up rocks – with my father in law for this very reason. Wherever we are – a vineyard in France, a peat bog in Harris, or a beach on the Northumbrian coast – he’s full of knowledge about where we are: the creatures we find, the birds nearby, the plant life, why the landscape is shaped the way it is, the history of the place and the people who live nearby.

(He’s often so knowledgeable, I’ve suggested he’s just making things up but that, sounding authoritative, he gets away with it. It’s not true, he really is that remarkable.)

On the flip side, walking can be a very personal thing. Nothing but you, the road ahead, your mind, and the thoughts that are bothering it. And, possibly a vague sense that you really ought to be somewhere else, or doing something more urgent (ignore that bit, it’ll still be there when you get back). You can use it as an opportunity to think, to catch up on podcasts or audio books, or just to relax, enjoy yourself and walk.

That’s what I tend to do. I rationalise the fact that I like to walk alone by claiming that I walk quite fast. I have no problem sustaining 15 minutes per mile (4 mph) over decent distances. And I tend to have a longer range for walking than most people. I don’t often have the time to walk ten miles, but I’m perfectly happy to do so.

In reality, I just value the time I get to spend alone, to recharge, to think. I’ve come to realise that, personally, walking is one of my meditative strategies. I focus on breathing, on being aware of my body – my gait, the way my arms are swinging – and my surroundings. I’m 'mindfully aware’ of the present moment. It’s ace.

So, stop reading this and go for a walk already!

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