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Thoughts on National Walking Day

Exercising for 30 minutes every day helps reduce the risk of heart disease, and that's the principle behind the American Heart Association's National Walking Day on April 4th. On the website to promote the day, the organization lists many of walking's physical and mental benefits. We read there that walking can help improve blood pressure, reduce the risk of some cancers, lower the risk of stroke, maintain a healthy body weight, and enhance mental outlook. The association encourages people who are adverse to walking alone to seek out a friend, join a walking club, or invite along a "furry friend." Many walkers know the furry friend to be the most grateful of companions.

The association's list of walking benefits naturally focuses on health, but we can and we should enumerate additional reasons for venturing forth into the world on two feet. After all, trying to motivate sedentary people to exercise for the sake of exercising is sometimes frustrating, because it doesn't sound like a lot of fun. But let's stop and think. How weird is that, this very idea of urging people to walk?

Considering the many ways in which we use the activity as an idiomatic expression - walk the walk, walk a thin line, walk on air, walk with, walk through, walk off, walk away, etc. - we must understand that walking is not something extraordinary at all, something we should do as a form of "exercise," but essentially a human trait. Losing our ability to walk should then be met with aggressive social measures, such as vigorous enforcement of ADA accessibility guidelines. Yet, decades of car culture have alienated many of us from our feet, and the information age, with its gadgets and GPS devices, has displaced our abilities to navigate based on experience. So much for knowledge of the streets.

A leading pedestrian cultural theorist and walking practitioner, Will Self, noted a similar phenomenon in London in a recent article published in The Guardian titled "Walking is political." (March 30, 2012) A shorter version of his inaugural lecture as professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University, the essay sets out to describe and analyze the "psychotic state" of the typical urban walker. In contrast to a hundred years ago, when Londoners made most of their journeys under six miles on foot and presumably could orient themselves on the streets, Self observes, "the majority of urbanites, who constitute the vast majority of Britons, neither know where they are, nor are capable of getting somewhere else under their own power." On the other hand, a minority of active walkers, those who are heirs to the flâneur tradition of a hundred years ago, respect the power of physical geography. Self writes, "The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control."

We started by talking about the health benefits of walking, and now we're ending with the politics of strolling. Walking for exercise, such as advocated by health associations, is different from the turtle-paced observational strolls of the flâneur. Walking for exercise is about stabilizing blood pressure and improving mood, resulting in healthy interior benefits. Walking to explore the city and meeting its individual citizens is a way of being alive and receptive to new experiences, heightening an awareness of the social and political forces that either limit or expand freedom.

While the two types of walkers seem altogether different, they could occasionally meet at a convenient intersection between personal health and urban democracy. Walkers out for hearty exercise in New York may want to take a cue from the flâneurs by observing places that could be improved for everyday walking needs. Flâneurs out for a stroll on the avenues may want to occasionally consider their own health needs and pick up the walking pace. If more people routinely took a walk, we would likely reap enormous social benefits, especially in the realm of public health.

As for everyone else, enjoy National Walking Day. Please get out of the car.

Stuck on the Park Avenue Malls
stuck on the Park Avenue median
 

Further reading:

• Will Self once walked from his home in London to Heathrow Airport, took the flight to New York, and upon arrival, walked from JFK Airport to his hotel nearby in Queens. The next morning, he resumed his journey by foot into Manhattan. Read his account in this extract from his 2007 book, Psychogeography: Disentangling the Modern Conundrum of Psyche and Place, published October 13, 2007 in The Independent (UK).

Related reading on Walking Off the Big Apple:

Toward a Pedestrian New York: The Future of a City on Two Feet.
For the 1,000th Post: A List of Lessons Learned.
• For health and exercise, including the distance it takes to walk off a pastrami sandwich, consult the page, Walking for Fitness.
• For those interested in walking in New York City anytime after National Walking Day, please consult the entirety of this website. A good place to start is the page NYC Self-Guided Walks (by Area).

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.





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