I recently had to take my car in for an extensive list of repairs, which left me carless for a week and a half. This left me with very few options for transportation to get anywhere, the easiest one being my own two feet. After 10 days walking everywhere, I have made some surprising observations.
When I moved into my apartment last year I chose the location keeping in mind the inevitability of car repairs, since my car is nearing the end of its life (or at least the point at which I no longer wish to put any more money into keeping it maintained). My apartment is located just a 10- to 15-minute walk from the studio where I train my clients. As a personal trainer my schedule varies considerably from day to day. Having clients at different times during the day and because I work from home during large gaps in appointments, and adding in my own workouts, I come and go from the studio to my apartment multiple times throughout the day. Living this close seemed like the best option not only to save on gas, but so that I could still complete my daily routines without too much of a hiccup in the event that I didn’t have a vehicle. For the time being I would be walking everywhere, and I would hitch a ride to the grocery store on the weekends with my roommate when he did his shopping.
Walking is a great activity and has many known health benefits,1 including:
- Reduce the risk of coronary heart disease
- Improve blood pressure and blood sugar levels
- Improve blood lipid profile
- Maintain body weight and lower the risk of obesity
- Enhance mental well being
- Reduce the risk of osteoporosis
- Reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer
- Reduce the risk of non-insulin dependent (type 2) diabetes
But as I began to walk everywhere, I noticed other benefits as well:
- Increased sense of independence: At first this might be counterintuitive to imagine. How can not having a vehicle make you feel more independent? While it’s true I was more limited in where I could go (ok, I wasn’t necessarily limited at all, except by my laziness to want to walk there or figure out a bus schedule), there is a strange feeling you get when you travel everywhere on your own two feet. You aren’t relying on any tools or equipment, and nothing that can break on you without warning. You don’t have to worry about being late because of traffic or your car breaking down; if you leave on time, you get there on time. There’s a strong sense of independence knowing that you are carrying yourself wherever you need to go without outside intervention.
- Increased calories burned: This one is obvious, but the extra 2-3 miles I walked everyday definitely increased the number of calories I was burning. Even though the number of calories burned was modest (~200cal), it was an additional 40 minutes of non-sedentary activity; a plus considering more time spent sedentary throughout the day is linked to a variety of health concerns.2
- Slowing down my day: In a world of increasing speed, sometimes it’s important to slow down for a moment. We have reached a point where we feel like everything in our lives needs to happen immediately. Traffic that slows our commute is tortuous; food needs to be ready within 5 minutes or it’s too much of a hassle; and heaven forbid we have a slow internet connection or else we may just murder our computer. Having to take the extra time to walk everywhere forced me to slow down my day. Unless I ran (which we already established I wouldn’t do for fear of my clients being stuck with me for an hour as a sweaty mess), there was no speeding up my walking commute. Even though it was only a 10- to 15-minute walk, doing that 2-3 times a day forced me to really slow down. It was a chance for me to cool down after my workout, or clear my head after a long day. It forced me to take a breather from work, and gave me the opportunity to just put my headphones in and enjoy carrying myself to a new location.
After a couple days of getting used to my new schedule, I actually began to enjoy it. The extra travel time didn’t seem like a hassle anymore. I felt less stressed and more relaxed. Oddly enough during this time I actually felt less hungry, even though I was more active. It gave me a chance to enjoy the sun and nice summer weather, something I need to do more. (Being in the sunshine can also have health benefits, including stimulating vitamin D production and even reducing migraine headaches, provided you don’t overdo it and use sunscreen appropriately.) I’m usually either in the gym training (myself or clients) or I am at my desk at home working on any number of projects I have going on at the time. Being out in the sun was a nice change of pace to my normal routine.
The most interesting thing I realized during my time of car-less commuting is just how out-of-touch most of us are with the simple act of walking. During this time I had countless friends and clients offer me rides if I needed to go somewhere, certainly a kind gesture. What shocked me was how shocked they became when I turned down these rides. Perhaps part of this shock came from the fact that I declined a perfectly good offer given out of good will, which could be misconstrued as being rude. But, what if it comes from something else entirely? What if the bigger reason for this confusion came from a much more disturbing fact: why the heck would I willingly choose to walk somewhere when I could get a ride? Keep in mind, this was not a question of distance. I got the same reactions whether I need to travel 5 miles or a quarter mile. I also got the same reactions both from people who exercise regularly, and those who don’t. The same look of shock and confusion would come over the individual offering me the ride as I turned it down and opted to walk instead. Have we become so out-of-touch with our inherent ability to walk places and be physically active that it seems only a crazy person would willingly choose to do so? (I will admit many would consider me crazy for other reasons).
I can’t help but wonder how these shared views of something as simple as walking somewhere play into the current obesity epidemic. Medical and public health professionals utter the same sentiments: our society needs to move more and eat less. How do these views of walking manifest throughout our society? Is it a widespread shared view, or limited by region? Do individuals in climates that are warm year-round have less apprehension of walking places, or would their reactions be the same? How can we, as a society, move more if we are inherently against moving?
With these questions in mind, I want to challenge everyone to spend more time walking as a form of commute. Maybe choose a weekend, and walk everywhere you may need to go. Keep it simple and don’t try any large treks, but find things you can do that are within a 5-mile radius of your home. Walk to the grocery store, walk to the movies, or walk to a friend’s house. Experience what it feels like to travel using nothing but your body to move. Enjoy the summer weather and take a break from our fast-paced society. You may be surprised how empowering and good it feels!