Walking is making a major comeback. (Illustration: Michael Parkin)

Walking Is Making a Major Comeback

Many of us have long dismissed this gentle, approachable activity for more adrenaline-pumping forms of exercise. We've been missing out—big-time.

Until very recently, the idea of going for a walk for fun never crossed my mind. I preferred more heart-rate-boosting, woo!-inducing forms of exercise; my idea of a good time included sailing off lippy kickers on my mountain bike or floating through fresh powder on skis. I just didn’t have much use for walking when I didn’t have to. Walking wasn’t going to get me ripped. Walking wasn’t shredding. Walking was good for digestion and something nice I did with my aging parents. Walking too far made my feet swell and my lower back ache. Walking was boring.

But like many of us this spring, I started doing a lot of things that were out of character. I stopped drinking. I started baking bread. I planted flowers and succulents and somehow kept them alive. I played board games. And I started going on long walks. 

I could blame the baking, the gardening, the board games, and the teetotalism on the new restrictions caused by the novel coronavirus. I joked that I was playing quarantine bingo, systematically ticking off every trope on my Instagram feed. But the seed for the walking was planted well before the pandemic.

Last July, my fiancé, Andrew, was hit by a driver in a van while riding his bike. He survived the collision, just barely, undergoing ten surgeries in 17 days to piece him back together like a titanium-scaffolded Humpty-Dumpty. But all the operations couldn’t fix the worst of his injuries: his spinal cord had been damaged, and his left leg was paralyzed. After a three-month stint in the hospital—or what we like to call his “extended spa stay”—he came home in October. 

Andrew had been a bike racer for half his life. He competed as an elite amateur on the velodrome and the road, lining up against national champions and Olympic hopefuls in professional races while holding down a nine-to-five job in marketing. Now, at 34, he simply hoped to walk again. 

Wearing a rigid, full-leg orthotic brace and wielding forearm crutches that extended to his elbows, Andrew first ventured out onto the streets of our neighborhood in Boulder, Colorado, a few days after his homecoming. I walked behind him, my hand grasping a cotton gait belt we tied around his waist, so that I could stop his fall in case he stumbled. Initially, going just ten minutes up and down the block exhausted him. But he built his strength, and our walks got longer. The belt, which he hated, came off by November. By February, he was able to unlock the knee joint of his brace and stabilize his leg on his own. By the time COVID-19 came to Colorado in mid-March, we were walking up to 90 minutes at a time.

On the weekend of March 14—when the ski resorts, breweries, and many other vestiges of normalcy began shutting down around us in rapid, alarming succession—we started noticing something new on our strolls. Suddenly the streets were filled with people who were also just... walking around. Couples sauntered. Families with young children trooped the sidewalks. Our reclusive older neighbor power-walked up and down our block. 

I started walking on my own, too. For the first two weeks of quarantine, I didn’t have the energy for much else. I’d wake up so tired, I thought I must have the coronavirus. But I wasn’t sick. I was just sad. (Science tells us that when we’re stressed, we’re less active, and mental fatigue can translate to physical fatigue.) Getting to the end of the workday felt more exhausting than ever. After I closed my laptop each evening, I couldn’t bear the thought of pushing my body hard, too. So instead I’d cross the street, get on a local trail, and tramp briskly into the cool, fading light. I drew deep breaths of the damp, piney air. I gaped at the panoramic views of the Flatirons jutting up over the horizon. One evening, after a spring snowstorm, I stared dopily for minutes at a low-hanging branch of a ponderosa pine, its cones glazed thick with ice. Frozen stalactites melted off the pine needles, forming piles of glassy crystals that tinkled when I kneeled to run my fingers through them. 

As I walked, I circumambulated six-foot bubbles containing other people doing variations of the same thing: walking and talking with earbuds in, walking the dog, walking with a friend at arm’s length.

It seemed that Andrew and I had been ahead of at least one trend. Walking was making a major comeback.

The writer and her fiancé, Andrew Bernstein, walking their neighborhood trails in Boulder, Colorado, in May
The writer and her fiancé, Andrew Bernstein, walking their neighborhood trails in Boulder, Colorado, in May (Photo: Courtesy Gloria Liu)

During the second weekend of sheltering in place, another spring snowstorm hit. That Sunday afternoon, I went for a hike amid the swirling flakes. I walked with my headphones on, listening to the final episode of S-Town (podcasts being another new habit I’d picked up in these experimental times). As the story took its final, gasping turns, I took in views of a snow-covered valley beneath me. I slipped and slid back down to the car, listening to John B. read his manifesto to the world. I felt the cold air sting my legs through my tights, smelled the wet earth beneath the snow, and in my mind saw a run-down house in rural Alabama. It was a delicious flood of the senses. I was at once so aware of the world around me and yet rapt by the scenes unfolding between my ears.

But as much as I enjoyed my new walking habit, I was conflicted about it. When I got home from my snow stroll, there was the niggling thought that I could have used that time more effectively. Would those 90 minutes have been better spent repeating intervals on the trainer or otherwise performing “real exercise”? According to Instagram, other people were getting fit during lockdown, doing pull-ups in their bedroom doorways and circus tricks on Bosu balls. I was wandering through the woods listening to podcasts.

I loved my walks with Andrew—it was the only outdoor activity we could still share. But when I wasn’t with him, well, I was an able-bodied, fit 36-year-old. Shouldn’t I be doing something more vigorous? 

The fact that I felt ambivalent about this at all was equally frustrating, that I couldn’t just enjoy walking for the simple pleasure that it was. I was jealous of my friend Mike, who was meditating every day, posting gratitude journals on Facebook, and going for 90-minute hikes every morning, without a care for what I assumed must be his waning fitness and shred cred. (I was wrong, when we finally rode again a couple months later I’d realize that those daily hikes had made him crazy strong.) Mike loved mountain biking, rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, and backcountry skiing. And yet, as he told me serenely: “I went for a long hike on Saturday morning. It was awesome!” 

It occurred to me, after talking to Mike, that perhaps walking had a branding problem. Billed for so long as a gentle, slow-speed form of exercise for older people, or for those looking to lose a little weight and be more active, it had lost its appeal to much of the younger, outdoorsier set, who dismissed walking and instead chose more efficient and exciting ways of burning calories and boosting endorphins. But maybe all this stemmed from a fundamental misunderstanding of why we walk at all.

One thing was clear: the walks were some sort of therapy. They seemed to loosen my thoughts, bestowing the type of clarity I usually found on long drives or airplane flights and inspiring ideas that I jotted down trailside in my phone.

The history of walking as a means of liberating the mind spans cultures and centuries. Practitioners of kinhin, the Zen Buddhist practice of walking meditation, move slowly and deliberately, paying attention to each step and breath. Great thinkers from Nietzsche to Kant to Thoreau to early-feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously had walking practices. “I cannot preserve my health and spirits,” Thoreau wrote, “unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” 

Walking is also integral to religious pilgrimages. The rituals of the hajj, the journey to Mecca that every Muslim who is able is expected to make at least once in their lifetime, often involve walking several miles per day. In the U.S., the Good Friday pilgrimage to Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico draws some 60,000 seekers per year, many of whom tackle the full 28 miles from Santa Fe. And of course, there are the thru-hikers who traverse entire countries for the challenge, adventure, and self-knowledge that can only be gained from the longest of walks. 

At the root of this is the indisputable fact that walking is a highly effective way to work shit out in your head. “There is a lot of research on creativity while walking,” says Jennifer Udler, a therapist in Potomac, Maryland, who practices “walk and talk” therapy with her clients. “Our dopamine, our serotonin, all the feel-good chemicals, are being released when we walk. And that’s not just mood. It’s creativity, it’s de-stressing, it’s lowering cortisol—there’s a lot of chemistry involved in this.” A 2014 study at Stanford University, for example, asked participants to come up with novel uses for common items like a tire or a button. Researchers found that the number of creative ideas generated increased by roughly 60 percent while participants were walking, compared to when they were sitting.

Andrew walking in Boulder County in May
Andrew walking in Boulder County in May (Photo: Courtesy Gloria Liu)

While it’s true that higher-intensity exercise like running or cycling can release similar neurotransmitters, walking seems more likely to produce insights and even revelations. One theory, explored in a 2017 article published by Brain World, a magazine devoted to neuroscience, is that the complex nature of walking as a movement lights up various parts of your brain at the same time. Then there’s the common-sense explanation: when I’m trail-running or riding my bike, a portion of my brain is usually devoted to things like not tripping over big rocks on the trail, listening for cars on the road, or simply pushing through tough moments in the workout. The unconscious nature of walking frees up mental bandwidth. 

When we ramble through parks or wildernesses, we get a double hit of the good stuff. Udler points to a growing body of research examining the therapeutic benefits of simply being in nature. One 2018 study found that walking outdoors reduces cortisol and improves your mood more than, say, exercising on a treadmill. 

For all these reasons, Udler believes that walking is like a therapy hack. “I have to say, it takes away half my job,” she laughs. “Because people are just naturally feeling better.” 

Though my walks are only minutes or hours in duration, rather than days or months, I feel a kinship with the pacing Japanese monks and the pilgrims and the long-distance hikers. Our journeys vary in scale. But we walk to be transformed, to return home a different person than the one who left.

The best reason to walk, though, is because we can. I began to be impressed with the biomechanics of walking early last year, well before Andrew’s crash, when I was working on a story about a professional mountain biker named Paul Basagoitia who had sustained a spinal-cord injury that left him paralyzed below the waist. A year after his injury, Paul regained the use of his quads and hamstrings, and he could ride a bike. But because his glutes and calves still don’t work properly, he uses a cane to get around day to day. “Believe it or not, it’s a lot easier to pedal a bike than it is to walk,” he told me. 

As a mountain biker myself, I marveled at the idea that this placid activity, which I performed without a conscious thought, was in some way more demanding than the sport I spent 10 to 12 hours a week training for.

Then Andrew’s crash happened. The first time I saw my partner stand in the hospital, six weeks after the crash, it was with the assistance of a physical therapist who held him like a child, arms wrapped around his back for several seconds, before Andrew collapsed onto the bed, panting from the effort. Two months post-crash, when he began taking his first steps in the rehab hospital with his leg brace and a walker, his left leg dragged like a log. The effort of hoisting it forward with each step made him grunt and grimace. I suddenly understood that I mindlessly performed miraculous feats countless times a day: shuffling sleepily from my bedroom to my bathroom each morning, navigating the treacherous Boulder Whole Foods parking lot, striding down Pearl Street to meet a friend.

Here’s what it takes for you to take a single step, according to Dr. Jessica Rose, director of the Motion and Gait Analysis Laboratory at Stanford University’s children’s hospital: as you step forward with one leg, just before your foot makes contact with the ground, the glutes, hamstrings, and quads activate to stabilize the hip and knee. Those muscles stay active as your foot touches down and your weight shifts to that limb. For a moment, this “stance limb” supports 100 percent of your weight. During this time, the stance-limb calf muscle activates to stabilize the ankle and knee, controlling the forward progression of your center of gravity over your foot. As weight shifts to your forefoot, it allows your heel to rise, so you can generate power through the ground, initiating the so-called swing phase of walking. 

Andrew walking in Sedona, Arizona, in December 2019
Andrew walking in Sedona, Arizona, in December 2019 (Photo: Courtesy Gloria Liu)

At this point, you need to bend your hip and knee quickly to lift your foot high enough off the ground so you don’t trip. (Your other leg is on the ground now; it’s your new stance limb.) Now the hip flexors and ankle dorsiflexors, such as the anterior tibialis in front of your shin, get involved to swing your leg through swiftly. At the end of the swing, your hamstring controls the speed of your knee extension. (Andrew’s hamstring is still weak, so his leg tends to snap straight at this step—his brace is the only thing that prevents his knee from hyperextending.) Your foot then makes contact with the ground, beginning the cycle again. 

None of this, by the way, even gets into the upper-body biomechanics of a normal gait, with your opposing arm swing; or your ability to balance, which is neurological and neuromuscular; or your proprioception, which is the awareness of your body in space, or, as Andrew puts it, “knowing where your shit is.” This allows you to place your foot on the ground without having to stare at it. (Because Andrew can’t feel his foot, he relies in part upon sight to place it, so when he and I walk, it’s my job to point out the scenery.) 

We usually take this mind-boggling sequence for granted. But anyone who’s nursed a minor injury, like an ankle sprain, or a more serious one, like a torn ACL, becomes acutely aware of what you lose when even one link in the chain is broken.

This past Christmas, Andrew and I went to Sedona, Arizona. Among the trails rated beginner-friendly online, I cherry-picked the ones that had the words “good for kids,” “flat,” and “smooth” in their descriptions. Even these trails had obstacles that seemed formidable, though in a former life, both of us would have scampered over them with ease. As I watched Andrew use his crutches to hoist himself up stairstep boulders and totter precariously over mellow creek crossings, I became acutely aware of the flexing, tensing, and balancing happening in my own body to move over this uneven terrain.

We pushed Andrew’s limits so much on that trip that the rivets popped out of his leg brace, requiring two visits to the local orthotist to get it repaired. But we had a fun and memorable vacation, gaping at red-rock cathedrals that towered against IBM-blue skies and wondering aloud about the names of the glowing green shrubs that lined the trails. Several times I thought soberly of the wheelchair Andrew used to leave the rehab hospital. It could only travel smooth, paved paths, paths connected to parking lots alongside roads. None of the trails we did, none of the spectacular scenery or the soul-soothing solitude that we found even a mile from the trailhead, would have been accessible in that wheelchair. We could only get there because he could walk.

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.

Lead Illustration: Michael Parkin

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The Extraordinary Power of Going for a Walk