The walking cure


I first started walking in my mid-30s, heartbroken and fat. Heartbreak is a gift, like bankruptcy or a nervous breakdown: people only try to become happy when they can no longer deny they aren’t.

What would make her love me again? Maybe it would help if I weren’t 15 kilograms overweight. I came across a book sold in plastic wrapping containing a complimentary pedometer. “Walk 10 000 steps a day”, it said, “and the weight will melt away”.

I’m a sucker for a magic remedy, and all that walking would give me something to do while I was being depressed. I was depressed then because I was heartbroken, but I was often depressed, not in a clinical, diagnosable way but in the smaller, sporadic, mopey ways in which people get low and listless and become a temporary drag on themselves and their partners.

It was difficult to walk 10 000 steps a day until I started doing it, at which point it became very easy. 10 000 steps is about ninety minutes of gentle walking, but of course you’ll walk a fair number of those just living your life. The average formally employed South African in an urban environment walks 6754 steps per day; the average American just over 5000. That extra 45 minutes or so makes all the difference, especially if you do it outside rather than a treadmill, your eyes level and looking around instead of down at a phone.

I lived in Johannesburg at the time, in Hyde Park, and it isn’t easy walking your steps outdoors in Johannesburg. People drive everywhere with such insistence that you start to believe there must be a reason for it. The first time you set off to walk to your Postnet box on Oxford Road, or up Jan Smuts to your friend Charlie in Rosebank, you think something terrible must surely happen. You’ll burst into flames or be set upon by wild dogs. But then you reach where you’re going and you realize it’s closer than it feels when driving, and along the way you’ve noticed things that you haven’t noticed before, and of course you weren’t walking alone at all, you were sharing the streets with people who walk because they don’t have cars and you looked in each others’ eyes and greeted and shared the same tarmac and occupied, briefly, the same city.

And you notice that when you get where you’re going your eyes are a little clearer and the blood seems to sing a little and you only realize that you used to be irritable by the degree to which you no longer are. Plus something unexpected: somewhere along the way you solved a problem; a decision became clarified; you’ve had an idea.

It’s not just that walking gives you time to think away from your screens: there’s something about the undemanding physical motion of your walking body that sets free parts of your mind. The speed and rhythm of a pleasant walk chimes with the speed and rhythm of creative thought – your mind meanders effortless and unfocused until suddenly it comes upon something of interest and your eyes snap open wide in discovery.

Centuries have felt it before me: Nietzsche walked two hours a day, Dickens five, sometimes in dead of night through the gas-lit London streets. He didn’t walk to compose his novels but to recover from the effort of daily writing and to fill up the tank for tomorrow. Aristotle liked to walk and talk (his pupils were known as The Peripatetics) and so did Steve Jobs and Soren Kierkegaard and every character on The West Wing.

Once I discovered walking, I cherished it like natural magic. Walking is the process of repeatedly falling forward into life and breaking your fall with your own leg. It’s an act of curiosity in the world, faith in the horizon, unity with our ancestors who came down from the trees and straightened their backs and walked to become human. In the last decade every important decision I’ve made – stop pining; move cities, buy a house, get married, quit my job – I’ve made on foot, with a feeling of optimism and discovery. Thoreau, that compulsive daily walker, called himself a saunterer, which name, he said, derived from the pilgrims walking to the Holy Land, to Saint Terre. Even on mundane daily walks he is a Saint Terre-er, because “every walk is a crusade to go forth and find our Holy Land”.

I haven’t been depressed in more than ten years, not the way I used to be. I never lost the fifteen kilograms but I lost ten and haven’t put them back. Does walking make you happy? No, nothing by itself makes you happy, but it does something even more remarkable: it stops you making yourself unhappy.

Sunday Times, 29 August 2017