The Medicine of Walking

How Walking Makes Us Human

In his incredible book, In Praise of Walking, author Shane O’Mara writes that walking separates humans from other animals. Walking upright “frees our hands for other tasks…makes our minds mobile…and changes our relationship to the world.”

O’Mara even concludes that a baby who grows up in a non-human environment will learn how to walk upright without any models to guide her development. Walking is intuitive to humans. In many ways, it has “defined human history.”

Of course, I wasn’t thinking about any of this while growing up in Germany, where it is common to stick your newborn baby in a pram, cover them with blankets and go for a long walk. I’ve been walking – on my own two feet and with help from others – my entire life.

As a child, walking was both a form of exercise and social activity. I grew up in a family of walkers. My grandparents were always outside, no matter the weather, and I have tons of pictures from family gatherings showing everyone out after coffee and cake. Long walks together allowed for time to catch up and connect.

But as wonderful as a walk with someone else can feel, talk to anyone who’s ever made a pilgrimage, and they’ll tell you that long walks nearly always become an inward journey.

This is Your Brain on Walking

When I was fifteen, suffering from my first broken heart, I ran out into the pouring rain and stomped my way through puddles for miles until I physically felt better. Author Kelly McGonigle explains this phenomenon in her book The Joy of Movement.

“If you are willing to move, your muscles will give you hope,” she writes. “Your brain will orchestrate pleasure. And your entire physiology will adjust to help you find the energy, purpose, and courage you need to keep going.”

While any movement is beneficial, walking has a particular effect on the brain. During a recent interview, McGonigle explained that all movement sends the brain some information. When we breathe, the message is “I’m still alive.” When we lift weights, it’s “I am strong.” But when we walk or run, it’s “I am going somewhere.”

The moment you start walking, your brain picks up on the change of environment. The longer you walk, and the more awareness you bring to your movement through space, the easier it is to feel connected to your surroundings. That feeling leads to a simultaneous sense of freedom and grounding.

Walk Your Way to Improved Leadership

Walking supports your cognitive abilities, enhances social skills, and opens your senses to new ideas and perspectives. If you’re in a leadership position and you’re struggling to inspire team members, devise creative solutions to common problems, or communicate your vision for a project, taking a walk could be your saving grace.

“Regular movement improves our thinking, feeling, and creative selves in myriad ways, as well as improving our health,” writes O’Mara. And research shows that interrupting prolonged periods of sitting by standing up has a positive effect on our cognition.

If you’d like to add more steps to your day but can’t seem to get started, here are a few ideas:

  • Walk in nature if possible. City walks are lovely, but they can be overstimulating. Nature walks calm the nervous system and provide a deeper connection to your surroundings.

  • Join The Walking Book Club. If you love books, this is an easy way to increase daily steps. While you may not connect as profoundly to your environment, your brain will still sense that you’re going somewhere.

  • Walk with a friend. While Covid has made it more challenging to walk socially, you can still use your time to connect with friends and family over the phone while you’re on the move.

Walk to Engage Your Senses and Connect with Yourself

When I struggled with my herniated disc a few years ago, the fear that I would never walk again was my greatest motivator to heal. I still have to be careful, but every time I walk, I remember when I couldn’t, and my brain gets the feedback that I am capable of going further.

Recently, I set a goal to “walk to Edinburgh” –  a mere 8,123 km / 5,047 mi, or nearly 11.6 million steps. Considering that I walk about 5 km a day, it will only take me…about five years!

But I do not care when I arrive, only that I hit the goal eventually. Walking provides an opportunity to connect with yourself and your surroundings. In other words, it’s the journey, not the destination.

The next time you go out for a walk, engage all of your senses. Feel the earth under your feet and the air on your skin. Smell the wet ground or freshly cut grass. Listen for the sounds and look for the colors of nature.

All of that sensory input translates into valuable spatial information that connects you to your surroundings, thereby affirming your place in the world.

Nicole is a creative leadership coach and speaker who empowers women to transform limiting beliefs and bring their lives and careers to new heights.

Photo by Mr.Autthaporn Pradidpong on Unsplash

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