7 Reasons Why You NEED to Take A Walk, And It’s Only Partly About the Exercise

“The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.”
― Rebecca SolnitStorming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics

A few months ago, I had a revelation that truly threw me off my feet: I had not enjoyed a solitary walk on an unknown street for months. Before you come to the conclusion that I must be a toad, let me explain.

Having recently moved back to Bangladesh, I realized quite fast that in Chittagong, there are few parks where you can walk to without being stuck in traffic conditions that will make you fearful for your life. Dhaka, by contrast, is even worse for walking lovers, I reckon, but the close proximity of Ramna Park to my workplace has been keeping me happy on most weekdays, and whilst in Chittagong, my parents’ house thankfully provided ample walking grounds.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents always made sure I exercised, the gems that they are, and introduced my siblings and I to bicycling. Yet, walking, I feel, helps us connect the dots on things we often take for granted, and little of this connecting has to do with distance.

Yet, there’s something about walkability that I didn’t discover when I took my first steps or even when I bicycled the circles in the courtyard outside our driveway. Here are seven lessons I’ve come to learn, which for me make walking crucial to my growth as a human being.

1. WALKING WILL PHYSICALLY HEAL YOU

At the age of 14, I received a triple whammy: I had to hike up a mountain 30 minutes on any given day to get to school from our dormitories. To top this rather painful fact off, I had hepatitis the summer preceding boarding school. To add icing to this, my parents and the doctors thought I should take a gap year off, but I was indignant not to pause my education.  

English: Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta) in A...

English: Rhesus Macaques (Macaca mulatta) in Agra, northern India Deutsch: Rhesusaffen (Macaca mulatta) in Agra, Nord-Indien (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Between 5 pitchers of glucose infusions a day, that caused a lifetime of detesting Tang (despite subsequently tasting the drink without this added sugar), and a one month hiatus promised in the form of the health center jeep taking me up the hill like an invalid, I came to realize that beating the disease was more than just beating a sickness: walking provided the means of recuperating in the hills in a crucial and imperative time of my growth as an adolescent.

If you are unfortunate enough to experience a bad bout of this rather tasteless waterborne disease, you will realize that walking 10 feet without almost passing out is quite a feat. As I began to recuperate, walking became a daily challenge on the road back to health. I don’t think I will ever make any records in exercising, and certainly, I was the class clown when it came to cross-country running feats, but I did begin to love my walks and the clear days when I could see the Ganges down the horizon, or even more, when I was able to run away from an approaching rhesus monkey (yes, people, life can actually be filled with monkeys on a daily basis when you live in India).

By the time I was done with high school, I had completed three long cross country runs and one 1500 meter race (and came last for most of them), but you know something, I had defeated myself, and had come quite far in doing so. Walking can heal, it will heal, and it will make you proud of yourself too.

2. WALKING PREVENTS HEART DISEASE AND HELPS YOU LOSE WEIGHT

“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional,” Haruki Murakami tells us in his reflective essays about his days running during his years in Boston, titled “What I Talk About, When I Talk About Running.”

As always, my favourite Japanese writer really knows what he is talking about. Suffering is something we do all on our own, and we don’t have to. Of course we’ll all have some rough spots, but why do we want to give ourselves more than is necessary?  If you’re trying to lose weight, what better way to be healthier than by walking?

Did you know that walking, a moderate form of exercising, when done at least 4 hours a week, can cut your health risks of developing heart disease by 50%? Break this down, it’s not actually that much: it’s only a little more than 30 minutes a day! Break it down further, if you don’t like walking too much, and you’ll realize that it’s the difference between walking to the store instead of taking the rickshaw or bus or the subway.

Walking is the most moderate form of exercising. And it clearly gets results.

3. WALKING CAN HELP PREVENT “BAD SHIT,” LIKE CANCER, FROM GOING DOWN

Okay, ghetto language aside, have you ever heard that saying: “Take a walk, clear out your lungs?” Puns aside on whether your city is sort of dirty and taking a walk may be a bit dangerous to your longevity because of pollution, you really should take this walk, and get serious about your health.

Here’s a scary thought: More than one in three of us will get cancer. All of us are affected by it. I’m sure you know of someone who has this terrible disease.

My reality shock about how close cancer can come knocking occurred when one of my high school best friends died of this horrifying disease a month after turning 26. Less than six months later, one of my closest college friends got it, and by some stroke of a twisted form of “luck,” it was early enough that she didn’t have to go through chemo. But she did have to have both her breasts taken out.

What I’m getting at, is that cancer is cruel. The first friend was a smoker. The second one has never been one. Neither has had a proper history of cancer in the family, so the simple truth of the matter is this: cancer doesn’t discriminate who it’s going to strike. The short of it is this:  Exercising regularly between the ages of 12 and 35 reduces breast cancer risks of developing cancer before menopause by 23%, according to the latest findings from the Nurses’ Health Study II, which tracked the lifestyle habits of almost 65,000 women.

“We don’t have a lot of prevention strategies for premenopausal breast cancer, but our findings clearly show that physical activity during adolescence and young adulthood can pay off in the long run by reducing a woman’s risk of early breast cancer,” said lead investigator Graham Colditz, M.D., Dr.P.H., in a press release. 

There you go, you have it from the experts. Oh, and before you reckon I’m only speaking to the women, here’s something for the men: The January 8, 1998 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reports on the findings of the Honolulu Heart Study, a study of 8000 men. Over a 12-year period, the study found that walking just two miles a day cut the risk of death almost in half. The walkers’ risk of death was especially lower from cancer. Those who walked infrequently were about 2 1/2 times more likely to die of cancer than were the two-mile-a-day men. These were men age 60 and above who appeared in good enough health to be able to walk. Those who did walk were less likely to die in the 12 years that followed.

4. WALKING MAKES YOU ONE COOL GAME PLAYER

No, I really do mean to be using such colloquial language to get my point across this one around. I’m not even trying to talk about “player” in the sense that many of us of those in the millennium generation have been thinking of it: as those rotten assholes who just want a quick hook up. I mean it in the Shakespearean sense. All the world’s a stage, and we really are all players.

614370_597457673206_650800285_oAll you gamers shouldn’t be disappointed either because I’m definitely not forgetting you. I’llbe the first to admit that I LOVE Soul Calibur as much as I love old school Mario Brothers.

What I mean is that walking leads you to becoming INVOLVED. Yes, I know that it’s a strange word to use, but other than that being involved connotes being connected, the second meaning of involved is “difficult to comprehend” or “complicated.”

Let me explain with another anecdote. There was a boy I was very much in love with during much of my college days. Between classes, double majoring, student government duties, and the 20 hours a week I juggled with working on campus jobs to earn pocket money to do “other stuff,” I soon realized I wasn’t actually doing much of this “other stuff.” Yes, I was “involved,” in everything I wanted to, but I was rather bored.

We’d been chilling for about half a year before we realized that we both loved walking. We also discovered we were both obsessed with Baudelaire, and shared serious feelings for magnolia blooms.

Walking gives you a sense of control over your life. Measuring the distance where you turn back on the path you came from is refreshing, too: there’s an element of excitement, anticipation, and discovery, and it’s all timed.

We did all this when we went on walks and discovered hidden piers in marsh lands in Tivoli, tree houses overlooking the Hudson River, and of course, Blithewood’s Greek garden. And every single time we went for walks, we had a baller time, because nature gave us so much food for thought.

5. WALKING INSPIRES CREATIVITY WHILE GETTING YOU ATTUNED WITH NATURE

When I was living on the Upper West Side in the summer of 2006, I briefly worked on transcribing, researching, and line editing manuscripts towards forming articles as diverse as secret societies through time, to apocalyptic prophecies through time.

Italiano: Memorial di John Lennon, negli Straw...

Italiano: Memorial di John Lennon, negli Strawberry Fields a Central Park, New York city (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I quickly realized the M72 was infrequent, the M64 a bit too out of the way, and strangely enough, the easiest path to take was to cut straight through Central Park, some 20 to 30 blocks either diagonally, or if the day was pretty and my appointment later than normal, then a more leisurely route. One day, as I was doing thus, I chanced upon a part of Central Park which is dedicated to the area where John Lennon was shot dead.

A quiet memorial to John Lennon exists at this very spot, on 72nd and Central Park West. It’s covered with trees, interwoven by intersecting paths, and perhaps, it’s not terribly different from any other part of the park, except for the buzz, the energy, that seems to reside even in the silences. The tribute is a grey and white mosaic mural depicting many stars crisscrossing into each other with a signage which simply says, “Imagine.” Incredibly symmetrical, and not too far from the formidable fortress where Lennon and Ono lived and flames flicker on the lanterns all year, imagining seems to be at the core of the tribute which fans pay to this memorial as they interact with it.  In other words, the forever was present in the constant shifts of activity on the assigned area.

The tribute has been a place of much real-life multimedia interaction, an unusual memorial simply because of this very key fact: Lennon’s death has become the very site of rejoicing his life. Sometimes the spot was surrounded with real strawberries, other times with guitars and musicians, even others with candles, silence, song and cheer. Every day saw and continues to see a different visage, a unique perspective on how the Beatles have created an impact. Art, perhaps not as the critics would define it, but an offering that brings together a community of mourners, a gathering of music lovers, and an enclave of people moved by the Beatles and their songs. Imagination is the word that is evoked daily, and it is evoked through practice,  through providing a unique reality for what would otherwise be a rather mundane tribute to one of the biggest music legends of the 20th Century.

As the summer progressed, I found myself looking forward to slowing down in Strawberry Fields, and observing  the particular “imagined community” I was witnessing.

You see, I never spoke to any of those paying a tribute to the Beatles, but they, like you and me, didn’t need to necessarily speak in order to talk, to tell me that we shared the same love for this man and his untimely death.

And just like these folks are inspired and pay homage to one of the greatest legends in music, artists, writers, thinkers, poets, have all written about how the urban landscape is a formation, a mapping, if you would will it, of your surroundings.

Which brings me to my sixth point.

6. WALKING IS THE WAY YOU REALLY “LIVE” IN A CITY AND MAKE IT HOME

Do you need food for thought as much as I do? I’m very easily distracted, which is possibly why I even wanted to be in NYC in the first place (well not really, that might just have to do with being uber ambitious mixed with a promise I made at the tender age of six, but more on that later).

Walking has given me freedom, however. I have discovered new restaurants that I wanted to try, learnt the ins-and-outs of every city much faster, figured out where the best scones are, and what tourist sights which should actually be popular are never so.

The commute to work made me realize that I’ve also managed to star gaze in very interesting ways and viable ways, and discovered very funny facts in the process: One of my jobs had me working high profile events management on the Upper East Side, and between discovering that Sean Connery was my workplace’s neighbor,  I also noted that the vermin do not spare the gates of his pretty townhouse, one fine day when I ran into him shaking his head at the rat that is standing next to his gate and staring at him boldly. He then turned to me approaching up the quiet street and grinned, as though it’s supposed to explain it all, “It’s trash pick up day.”

And I did get it. NYC has garbage collection day once a week, and it changes by different neighborhoods. You’ll notice this too, when you see the big black garbage bags if you live or pass through NYC at some point in your life.

7. WALKING MEANS YOU HAVE CONTROL

A couple of years ago, I saw a meme on Facebook which said that the mark of an equal society is not one where everyone has a car, but one where a rich person takes the bus. I’ve been stuck on this thought ever since, because while it has the possibility of some very astute truths, I find it to be a bit lacking. A “rich” person’s ability to take public transport is great, but being able to walk also incites having a sense of control over one’s life in a way that surpasses anything to do with transportation. 

An incredible conversation I had with 91 year old multi-millionnaire and human rights guru Robert L. Bernstein, founder of Human Rights Watch, once had us traversing 12 blocks on our legs. He was 88 at the time, and to be fair to him, much fitter than I reckon I’ll ever be. I was, to put it mildly, out of breath, as I kept up with his brisk pace and expert maneuvering of the streets to get to our designated restaurant.

When I questioned why he would rather walk, than take the train or the bus, he replied that “Nothing beats walkability.”

“You should always remember this,” he continued. “As long as you can walk, and you’re able to walk peacefully without the fear of being stabbed, and you’re not afraid to get lost, you’re further ahead in the game than anyone who doesn’t do thus. It’s fun, it gives you the chance to observe people while giving you a chance to collect your thoughts, and it’s at a pace that is absolutely disconnected from technology. You’ll eventually realize that walking regularly is the only way you can do more.

So take that walk, folks. I promise you, you won’t regret it.

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