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The mental health benefits of walking
July 5, 2021 | James Lin
Image by Pexels from Pixabay
I am an avid walker, both a cause and consequence of my not owning a car. Since the physical benefits of walking are pretty self-explanatory, I am discussing here a less obvious one: improved mental health.
Over the past year, the primary mental health benefit to walking is it has been my only form of regular in-person socialization (this is coming from an introvert). I live in Edmonton, and have a friend with whom I hang out; back in “normal” times we would get together to play video games and watch movies, which all ended for reasons everyone is familiar with. Coupled with the loss of organized sports, I needed a way to stay physically active. With both of us enjoying walks, my friend and I agreed to get together once every weekend, rain or shine, snow or hail.
Being inquisitive and intellectual types, during these walks my friend and I would discuss topics ranging from political science to Sartrean philosophy to the metaphysics of the Montreal Screwjob (look it up!). I like to think we have both become more knowledgeable of and sensitized to the world we live in as a result. Crucially, these discussions would not have taken place if our interactions were limited to sitting in front of a screen hitting cows in the ass with banjos. So as disruptive as events of the past year have been, they have helped the two of us to develop a new dimension to our friendship through our shared affinity for walking, one that I now cannot imagine being without.
Walking (whether alone or with someone) is also a time for self-reflection, especially when walking in nature; as mentioned, this is a time for me to ponder societal and philosophical problems. There is something called “transient hypofrontality,” the state of mind associated with physical activities that require little concentration. This state can yield unexpected thoughts, including an appreciation for the fragility of life or acceptance of one’s flaws; thinking while walking seems to have even contributed to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Being in an environment conducive to reflection also makes one wonder whether certain things are actually worth worrying about (some of them are, but asking the question in the first place is very therapeutic). Should I care so much about the minor argument I had the other day? Does it really matter if my application to the vexillology club is denied? Is it worth the brain cells to question the thermodynamics of anime characters transforming into giants? Actually, now that I think of it the answer to that last one is for sure yes.
By now it is hopefully clear that there are benefits to walking beyond being a simple means of transportation, and that for some people it really is about the journey and not the destination. And amidst the turbulent period that was the past year, walking can even be a gradual path back toward a sense of normality, one step at a time.
James is the son of INZ founder Charles. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Alberta.