Want to boost your health, stay young and get to know your city? Then according to a new book walk this way, says Peter Gruner
29 August, 2019 — By Peter Gruner
IRISH neuroscientist Shane O’Mara had been visiting Highgate cemetery when he had one of those epiphany moments.
The professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College, Dublin, was supposed to have been meeting a pal – who didn’t show up – at the cemetery, he writes in his new book In Praise of Walking. He needed to get back to Streatham where he was staying.
Should he take the bus or tube or both, or even hail a taxi?
No, it was a sunny afternoon and Shane decided he would walk the 11 miles back to south London.
That experience helped inspire the book that celebrates walking as “medicine” for body, mind and soul.
Not only did he enjoy the slow meditative stroll, with a particular interest in second-hand bookshops around Charing Cross, but he didn’t get lost thanks to following the street signs. It took him about four hours but at the end he felt elated if a little footsore.
“Walking a city is the best way to get to know it,” he said this week. “On foot you are directly in touch with city life in all its dirt and glory; the smells, the sights, the thrum of footsteps on pavements, shoulders jostling for position and placement, the street lights, the snatches of conversation.”
He maintains that you can’t get to know the mood of a place, its energy and pace when you are driving.
Some of his favourite places to walk include Hyde Park, Dublin’s Phoenix Park, New York’s Central Park, Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg, and Cubbon Park in Bangalore and the Villa Borghese in Rome.
But he warns that many parks and green spaces are always under threat from hungry developers.
We’ve come a long way, thankfully, from John Gay’s 1716 poem, Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London. Gay warned of the dangers posed by the emptying of chamber pots from high windows onto the streets below.
Today it’s likely to be roadworks that obstruct.
Charles Dickens, who undertook long and risky walks at night to ease his chronic insomnia, wrote in Oliver Twist that the back alleys of London were the “filthiest, strangest, and the most extraordinary if the localities that are hidden in London”.
Shane maintains that we overlook at our peril the gains to be made from walking for our health, mood, and clarity of mind.
“Many of us live in a deeply unnatural environment, where we spend long periods of the day staring at a screen.”
Walking, he says, is good for the heart, and helps to protect and repair organs that have been subject to stresses. It’s also good for the gut, assisting the passage of food, and can even, he maintains, reverse ageing. “You don’t get old until you stop walking,” he writes, “and you don’t stop walking because you’re old.”
He added: “GPs should prescribe walking instead of pills.” Another reason he didn’t get lost on his walk through Camden to the Thames and on to Streatham was a system called “dead reckoning”.
He writes that you estimate where you are likely to be, based on your speed and direction of movement from some fixed and known point, a process used by mariners and navigators from time immemorial.
Finally, for city dwellers who need to solve problems or simply contemplate – get out outside and pound the pavement.
“Get the wind on your face, let the light of day and street lamps of night dance on your eyes, feel the rain, sense the ground beneath, and hear the sounds,” he says. “Talk– if only to yourself – and relax into the rhythm of walking.”
• In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good For Us By Shane O’Mara, Bodley Head, £16.99