Everybody knows that walking is good for the body and the mind, and that it’s a great way to connect with the natural and human ecosystem in which we live. This is pretty intuitive, right? Walking makes us feel good. But as I discovered while working on my recently released book, Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act, researchers around the world are starting to deconstruct and quantify the benefits of this ancient but often neglected form of transportation — and they’re making the case that getting back on our feet can help alleviate an array of individual and social challenges.
To gain a deeper understanding of the reasons why people have stopped walking, I spoke with psychological Michael Vallis, who leads the Behaviour Change Institute in Halifax, a facility that helps healthcare providers promote new attitudes among their patients. Western society has “advanced” to the point where the brain’s operating system does not serve our best interests, Vallis told me. To successfully adapt to our largely urban environment, we need to override three of the basic evolutionary rules that govern our behaviour.
To save calories, we are programmed to choose the path of least resistance. This made sense when we were struggling to survive on the savannah. Today, it’s the reason we stand still on escalators and park close to the doors at the mall.
Second, we are prisoners of the pleasure principle: avoid pain, seek pleasure. Our choices used to be “run or get eaten by a bear” and “eat some berries or starve.” Now we can sit on the La-Z-Boy gorging on jelly doughnuts without fear of being attacked by so much as a mosquito.
Finally, we go for instant gratification. We watch TV while shoveling in potato chips, instead of asking, “How will I feel tomorrow if I take a walk today?”
Vallis and his colleagues at the Behaviour Change Institute equip healthcare workers with knowledge and techniques they can use to encourage people to get fit and eat healthy — for example, helping people develop “distress tolerance,” so they can suck it up during the demoralizing early stages of an exercise regime. Simple measures, like getting off the bus a few stops early, or taking the stairs instead of the escalator, can be effective.
Clients in his obesity program get passes for a parking lot one kilometre away from the institute. But the goal is to make these committed behaviours, so we opt to walk regardless of the weather and our moods.
The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of brisk walking five days a week, and notes that walking has the lowest dropout rate of any physical activity. And though the gains are modest, the health benefits of inching from sedentary to slightly active are more pronounced than the jump from average to extreme athlete.
“We need to promote doable and sustainable activities,” says Vallis. “Walking is not jockish. It speaks to a huge percentage of the population. Slow and steady wins the race.”
Adapted from Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act © Dan Rubinstein, 2015. Published by ECW Press. Dan is the brother of UHN’s Director – Environmental Compliance, Energy, and Sustainability and Talkin’ Trash mainstay Ed Rubinstein. borntowalk.org