People walking

Half way through National Walking Month, Kate Humble tells us why walking is so good for our happiness.

Kate Humble

Now, I have to confess that I’m not a city person, although I lived in one – London, our biggest, for nearly twenty years. The first ten years were fun – a novelty for someone who had grown-up a country bumpkin, more used to mud and scrambling over gates and stiles, than pavements and escalators. But my country roots called me back, and now I go back to London and other cities as a visitor, for a day or two. And I’ve discovered that I can enjoy and appreciate them more by travelling around them as much as possible on foot. The American writer and illustrator Maira Kalman sums up the joy of urban walking perfectly:

"I walk everywhere in the city.
Any city. You see everything you
need to see for a lifetime.
Every emotion. Every condition.
Every fashion. Every glory."

Kate Humble

And she’s right. Walking in town or city is a visual and sensual experience. I realise now when I return to London how beautiful some of the buildings are and that each district and area has its own personality and feel.  But we are also so lucky in Britain that our towns and cities have so many green spaces. When I was researching my book Thinking on my Feet, which explores the many ways walking can enhance our lives, I went to Manhattan. Unlike many American cities, it is one where lots of people get around on foot, but I find it a stressful place to be, hemmed in by the grid pattern of the streets and the huge buildings. I went there to interview a man called Clay Cockrell. Clay is a therapist, one of many in New York, but his approach to helping people deal with their mental health issues is somewhat different. As he told me ‘New Yorkers live in a box, go to work in a box, work in a box.’ He found that many of the people he was asked to help simply didn’t seem to make any progress by coming to his office.  Because, he said, ‘it was just another box.’ So instead he offered his clients the opportunity to have their sessions with him walking around Central Park.  The results, Clay said, were astonishing. People who started out walking and talking really fast, shoulders hunched and fists clenched with anxiety would start to slow, start to relax and, he said, they often found it easier to talk while walking than in the more confrontational space of an office. In the decade or so that he has been offering walking therapy he has helped countless people deal with stress, anxiety and depression.

There are many scientific studies that back up what Clay has discovered. Walking is good for our mental wellbeing, but it also helps us feel more connected with our communities, is a more conducive way to meet people, or just have a chat. With loneliness being such a factor of modern life, walking is a great way to counteract that and there are now many groups that get people together to go walking. Some GPs are even prescribing it for its physical as well as mental health benefits. Living Streets is working hard to make our towns and cities more conducive for all of us to walk more, whatever age we are. They would like to see children being able to walk safely to school, to ban pavement parking and create more car-free areas and I am delighted to support them, because the simple act of getting out on foot is not only good for us – and the environment - it is truly enjoyable too.

I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.