“You get old when you stop walking. You don’t stop walking because you get old,” says Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin and author of a new book, In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good for Us (Bodley Head).
“Walking is holistic: every aspect of it aids every aspect of one’s being. Walking allows us to hold hands, provide physical support to each other or march in protest. Walking is good for the body, good for the brain and good for society at large,” writes O’Mara.
Writing a book on walking seems like the perfect fit for O’Mara. He commutes to Trinity College by Dart but often gets off at an earlier stop to walk the rest of the way to work. He also walks to meetings on and off campus during his working day. And in the evenings, he walks up Killiney Hill, often carrying a Dictaphone to record early drafts of scientific papers or books he is working on.
We need to design our cities and towns for 'walkability' as more and more people live in them
He admits to being “a little obsessive” about checking how well he is doing on his walking app. “I’m usually in the top five per cent of the 2 million or so using the same app,” he smiles, showing me how the day we met he walked below his daily range of 9,500-14,000 steps.
O’Mara suggests that humans are essentially social walkers. “We migrated out of Africa to populate the entire planet in small family groups and tribes,” he explains.
“The brain is designed to be finely tuned to others who are walking with us. We unconsciously make an effort to synchronize our walking with others. Just think how irritating it is when someone persistently walks too quickly or too slowly next to you,” he says.
O’Mara explains how we all develop so-called cognitive maps which help us orientate ourselves in space. Drawing on a combination of our senses, we use these maps to help navigate our way around and can even fall back on this largely unconscious knowledge of landmarks, signs and instincts to find places we’ve visited long ago or even find our way around new places.
The health benefits of walking are well documented however O’Mara says it’s interesting to think of walking as a self-administered pill produced in our own bodies.
“Think of walking as something which repairs our brains, lowers our blood pressure, aids the passage of food through our intestines, reduces inflammation and allows us to be creative and better at problem-solving. We also know from studies that people who walk a lot are less prone to depressive disorders; that walking can enhance your memory and that older people who walk more are less lonely,” he says.
Just before his book was published, O’Mara participated in a panel discussion on walking at the Borris House Festival of Writing & Ideas in June with Nobel Prize winner and landmine survivor Jerry White.
The science, imagination and evidence needs to be turned into policy . . . and translated into beautiful, interesting streets of ease, variety and quality
At that event, White said that there are frequencies of walking we enjoy for different purposes such as walking for exercise, walking the dog, hiking, social walking with other people.
However, White said that there is a particular wisdom to be found in mindful walking. “This is walking at a slower pace in which you are conscious of every step, every breath and the sound of a bird or a twig cracking. I do better when I am mindful of my breathing when I’m walking,” he explained.
O’Mara agrees that walking can bring a great experience of flow. “Walking can allow you to escape yourself and this non-ego focus is healthy. We should spend more time not thinking of ourselves,” he says.
Many scientists and writers walk to organize their thoughts before they sit at their desks. And, some corporate organizations are now realizing that offices designed with indoor and outdoor areas for walking meetings can be more productive than meetings where everyone sits around boardroom tables. Some studies have even found that people are twice as good at coming up with new ideas if they walked beforehand.
O’Mara also has a campaigning zeal about how urban areas can be improved for walkers. Like many of the most progressive urban planners, he argues that pedestrians should be the first priority in cities - not motorized vehicles and particularly not private cars.
“We need to have wider footpaths and diagonal crossings at traffic lights which take into consideration people’s natural inclination to cross rather than moving them around a grid. Pedestrians also need longer times at traffic lights to cross roads and cyclists need to be on raised cycle paths segregated from cars/public transport,” he says.
Like many people who live and work in Dublin city centre, O’Mara would like to see a lot more green spaces and trees, hedging and plants used to separate walkers and cyclists from cars and public transport. “Using trees and plants to separate footpaths from traffic also helps to counteract the urban heat island effect and improves the quality of the air we breathe,” he says.
He says if he was a city planner, he’d ban private cars entering the city centre, have higher density urban housing and more frequent public transport so people could easily commute by bus, tram or train. “We need to design our cities and towns for ‘walkability’ as more and more people live in them. Self-driving cars and shared ownership in mixed-age communities will be the future,” he says. A city where people can walk easily makes business, social or just accidental meetings much more likely.
O’Mara also suggests that there is great potential for walking cities in the future. “What we need are acts of imagination fusing the needs of walkers with the expertise of town planners, psychologists and neuroscientists. The science, imagination and evidence needs to be turned into policy . . . and translated into beautiful, interesting streets of ease, variety and quality. Walking in cities should be safe, comfortable with a welcoming and interesting streetscape.”
The Philosophy of Walking
Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard wrote; “every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”