As a form of physical activity, it is easy to dismiss walking as, well, pedestrian. But now its benefits, both physical and mental, are being appreciated once again. Under lockdown, daily walks became sacred. Now they are the safest way to commute, and, for those stuck at home, there is little place else to go other than to wander the streets, forests, towpaths, cemeteries and eerily deserted business quarters.
We have become nosy tourists in our own neighbourhoods. We seek out less-travelled backwaters, eyeing curiously the fragments of human and animal lives that we pass, gazing on seasonal changes like besotted new parents. But are we walking to the best of our abilities? Possibly not. Sports scientist Joanna Hall has dedicated her career to coaching people in how to walk the way their bodies were designed to, which no longer comes easily in this sedentary, screen-based era.
“I approach this as you would do if you wanted to get better at tennis,” she says. She developed her Walk Active programme to enable people to ease their aches and pains as they exercise, rather than exacerbate them. Lifestyle, ageing and injuries mean that when we put one foot in front of the other, the way we use our muscles may be, she says, “suboptimal for improving our posture, or reducing joint strain and getting the most out of walking”.
According to Hall, there are four common aspects we get wrong, and each has knock-on effects on the body. Firstly, instead of propelling ourselves forwards by pushing off with the back foot, like an ice-skater, we try to use our stepping foot to power us along. This is because sitting down too much has made our hip flexor muscles short and tight. Hall describes the necessary adjustment as the subtle difference between stepping into a space (wrong) and pushing off from a space, which will recruit the right muscles up the backs of your legs. “You use your glutes and you open up the core,” says Hall.
The second problem is what Hall calls a passive foot strike. The movement provided by the joints in our feet offers suspension and balance but we often plod along flatly instead, leaving us compromised. “That’s what causes knee discomfort,” says Hall. “It can create slight misalignment of the back, stiffness of the shoulders.”
The third thing to watch out for is letting your head hang forwards. Screens, reading and desk work have made this the default position, which is a bit of a disaster. “When the head is slightly forward,” says Hall, “the muscles of the upper back and the shoulders have to contract to hold it there. The shoulders come forward and can stiffen. Back mobility becomes restricted and you will not be able to rotate your spine from the hips.” Try lifting your head before looking over your shoulder and you may discover, as I did, that you can turn your head much further all of a sudden.
Finally, our arms tend to hang awkwardly or we force them into tense, power-walk movements, when what they want is to dangle freely. If you get steps one to three right, this should happen naturally. Hall has devised various drills to help correct these bad habits, such as measuring with your hand the gap between your bottom rib and your hip, and between your collarbone and your earlobe, and then adjusting your posture to lengthen those gaps. Walking with her tips in mind has made me feel lighter; more gazelle than galumph.
Now that lockdown rules have eased, we can get some desperately needed time with friends or family members. Yes, not being allowed to hug is painful, but physically distanced walking together is the next best thing. This is because when two people walk together, they unconsciously fall into step. As a 2012 study by US and Japanese researchers found, when people move in sync together, their neural activity synchronises too. The more in sync we are, the deeper our social connection, so walking in step is pretty much a physically distanced hug.
Walking has long been hailed as an aid to creativity, too, by big thinkers from Aristotle to Wordsworth to Stanford University behavioural scientist Marily Ann Oppezzo. In 2018, Oppezzo and her colleagues, who study creativity, published research that set out to demonstrate this lightbulb effect. Participants who brainstormed while walking thought of significantly more valid ideas than those who tried to do the same while sitting.
So if you have to attend a (socially-distanced) brainstorming meeting, says Oppezzo, “go think about ideas beforehand while walking.” Brainstorming in groups, she says, is far less productive.
If you need to maximise the potential of a creative walk – perhaps you are finally starting that novel while quarantining – she suggests picking a problem or topic beforehand and thinking about potential new perspectives on it while you walk. Rather than taking a “deep dive”, she says, walking is great for taking a stroll around a subject, seeing it from different sides and coming up with new ideas.
She recommends travelling at a comfortable pace, so your physical exertion needs minimal attention, and coming up with as many ideas as you can, rather than trying to lock on to the first one you have. And if the ideas aren’t flowing, don’t force it. Come back to it another time.
Crucially, in the study, she had participants record their ideas, rather than write them down, “because the idea of writing something down is already a filter – is this good enough to write down? You can put your headphones on and record through your phone.” And if you are feeling self-conscious, the headphones allow you to pretend to passers-by that you’re having a phone conversation.
As well as percolating the cerebral juices, there are powerful mental-health benefits to be gained from walking. Half an hour of walking per day has been found to be as helpful as more intense 20-minute workouts in treating depression. Hugh O’Donovan, a psychologist based in Cork, wrote about the beneficial effects in his 2015 book Mindful Walking: Walk Your Way to Mental and Physical Well-Being. Walking provides what he calls “natural meds”, and there are no rules. Do you want to walk alone or with others? Do you listen to music or the outside world? Right now, enjoying the variety of options is key. “You have different locations and different routes,” says O’Donovan. “You can pick up the pace when you like, or you can slow down and be a bit more mindful. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just the fact that you’re doing it.”
To reinforce the positive effects, he suggests “experimenting with noticing how you’re feeling. Is it lifting my mood? Am I meeting people and socialising a little?” However you prefer to walk, he invites you to “come to your senses. This is profoundly important because much of the time we’re on autopilot. We’re unconscious, unaware of what’s going on around us. There’s magic all around us all the time but we’re too busy.” Coronavirus has slowed life down, perhaps making it a little easier to pay attention. “What are you seeing, smelling, tasting?” he asks. “The world looks like a completely different place when you bring this quality of curiosity to everything you do. People underestimate its value.”
While walking helps oil the cogs of the mind, and can help you get perspective if you’re struggling with something seismic such as grief, a job loss or the uncertainty of life under Covid-19, it pays to be aware of the risks of rumination. Namely, says O’Donovan, “the error and bias that’s associated with thinking, which lead us down a slippery slope into catastrophising and predicting the future negatively.” How can you avoid repeating the unhelpful and yet perfectly natural response, “why me?” or “why this?” Ask instead, says O’Donovan, “what now?” Walking can help with this. “The world opens up in a different way when we lift our mood, when we don’t fall into the hole.
“Your best chance to stay in contention, as I call it, is to be mindful about what’s going on in the world,” he continues. “It might seem like it’s very dark at the moment, but there’s lots of good stuff going on too. Focus on what kind of a story you choose to tell. And, by getting out, moving and keeping your energy up, you have the possibility of telling a more positive story.”
Amy Fleming is a freelance writer and former Guardian staff journalist. Follow her on Twitter @amy_fleming.