In Praise of Walking:
The New Science of How We Walk and Why It's Good for Us

Shane O'Mara

Vintage 2019
A book review by Danny Yee © 2022
O'Mara is a neuroscience researcher and draws on the latest brain research, but he doesn't get stuck in the details of that and In Praise of Walking is a broad-ranging account made up of short, accessible vignettes.

An introductory chapter uses four "stories" to illustrate some of the benefits of walking: measuring cognitive performance while walking; MRI scans and predator-prey interactions; getting a sixty-two year-old to walk the Via Alpina, retracing a route possibly walked by the "ice-man" Ötzi; and O'Mara's own use of a step-counter.

Turning to evolutionary history, O'Mara ranges from sea squirts, which eat their own nervous systems when they become sessile, to the origins of bipedalism and its role in human evolution, along with a comparison of energy balance and activity between people in "Western market economies" and Hadza hunter-gatherers ("who have been studied by evolutionary biologists").

Three topics are considered in the biomechanics of walking: the long journey children make from crawling to walking, the workings of the vestibular system, and the role of visual monitoring of the environment as we move. And O'Mara describes some of the experiments on people (and rats) that have revealed the role of different parts of the brain in navigation, spatial awareness, and maintaining "internal maps"; he also touches on the sense of time passing and on planning ("theta").

O'Mara explains the importance of the "walkable city". He also looks at variation in how fast people walk, and at how people negotiate other people and what they look at.

"Our ageing society presents a challenge for urban design, without doubt, but small, marginal and continual adaptations in walkability design can pay huge dividends both for society at large and for individuals. Changes that make walking life easier for the elderly and disabled also make walking life easier for us all."

Walking affects both body and brain, improving both physical and mental health; walking in natural areas is particularly beneficial. And walking can improve memory and cognition.

"Walking entrains changes across widespread brain and body systems, from the production of new molecules all the way to behaviour. Regular, up-tempo, walking is a simple and straightforward way of exercising the heart, and this in turn provides great benefits for the head-heart axis, because about 20% of the output of the heart is directed towards the oxygen-hungry and energy-hungry brain. Similar effects occur in the gut, which is also oxygen-hungry and energy-hungry. The cure is right in front of us: to get up and walk."

Why is walking so often linked to creativity? It is a form of "active idleness" which allows easy switching between a "default mode", with regular mind-wandering, and a more focused "active mode". O'Mara also explores walking rhythm, the passing of time, and the idea of "flow", when a great deal of terrain (geographical or conceptual) can be traversed with what feels like little effort.

Walking is often a social activity, involving families, larger groups, and individual walking with a social purpose (such as pilgrimages). People rapidly coordinate when walking together.

"Sensitivity to the walking direction of others is a profoundly important social cue, one vital to navigating crowds without colliding into each other. ... That these sensitivities to walking in others appear so early in development suggests again that our walking has a profoundly social function"

And collective activities such as walking can create a "psychological high", as seen in the power of protest marches.

The use of discrete stories makes for easy reading, but also makes In Praise of Walking scattered and episodic. Two dozen pages of notes allow individual topics to be followed up, however. And the structure helps convey the many, diverse aspects of human life that walking connects to, even though O'Mara stays with the science and psychology and only touches briefly on the literary and cultural.

September 2022

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%T In Praise of Walking
%S The New Science of How We Walk and Why It's Good for Us
%A O'Mara, Shane
%I Vintage
%D 2019
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9781784707576
%P 218pp