Walking was freedom in lockdown. These books show us why it’s so much more.

Sibbie O’Sullivan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Two years ago, while walking, I fell – bam! – on my right knee, shattering my femur against the artificial knee I’d had installed five years earlier.

First I felt amazement, then pain, then the existential dread of lying on the street wondering if anyone would hear my cries for help, then the ambulance, then my surgeon, then a brand new artificial knee, a larger one with an eight-inch rod that fit inside my femur. I was alive, grateful and bullish about rehab, but my ramblin’, dancin’ days were over. I’d walk again – slowly but not far. Still, walking, as so many people have discovered during the coronavirus pandemic, is freedom. Two new books remind us that it’s also so much more. Right away, you know what Shane O’Mara, a neuroscientist, thinks about walking.

His book, In Praise of Walking, available in paperback, extols the many benefits of putting one foot in front of the other: “We all know that it is good for our heart. But walking is also beneficial for the rest of our body. Walking helps protect and repair organs that have been subject to stresses and strains. It is good for the gut, assisting the passage of food through the intestines.

Regular walking also acts as a brake on the ageing of our brains, and can, in an important sense, reverse it. Reliable, regular aerobic exercise can actually produce new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that supports learning and memory.”

O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin, pointed to a lot of studies to make his case in a book that is generally free of jargon, if not overstatement: “No drug has all of these positive effects. And drugs often come with side-effects. Movement doesn’t.” Sadly, my experience is evidence of the contrary.

O’Mara emphasises the value of social walking, such as pilgrimages and protest marches, which offer “a chance for conversation to evolve in ways that it couldn’t, indeed that wouldn’t, if you simply sit together.”

He cites Mark Twain: “The true charm of pedestrianism does not lie in the walking, or in the scenery, but in the talking.”

O’Mara emphasises the compassion people have cultivated through walking, which should make readers more compassionate toward those who, for whatever reason, are forced to walk, such as refugees, or those who can’t walk well, such as the disabled. He stresses how walking promotes “creative cognition,” and that probably explains why so many writers and other thinkers, beginning with the “peripatetic” philosophers in ancient Greece, valued the activity. The social aspects of walking, of being grounded in the literal sense, come together in this handy remedy: “The spinning feeling when a drunk person lies down can usually be relieved by placing a foot on the floor.”

Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist, is more circumspect about human ambulation. His book First Steps tells a story millions of years old, one full of useful if not completely soothing scientific information. It’s inspiring to learn that about 3.8 million years ago, our early bipedal ancestors traipsed about, and that today’s emus can trace their two-legged locomotion back 240 million years. But learning that my lessened mobility could take four years off my life, contributes to muscle loss and accelerates cognitive decline, puts me in a bad mood – all because one of my ancestors, in some dark alley of time, decided to climb down from a tree, stand upright and check out the horizon.