Think walking is void of philosophy? Nietzsche and Gros are here to say you're wrong.
- French philosopher Frederic Gros tells us that walking is a route to entirely being ourselves and experiencing the sublime.
- He has a bias towards the wondering hikes of Nietzsche and Kerouac but has a place for urban strollers too.
- His book reminds us that even something as mundane as walking can be a vital part of our lives when done for itself.
Walking is good for you. Regular walks can improve bone health, reduce blood pressure, and even prevent Alzheimer's. You're supposed to get in 10,000 steps a day, but millions of people across the United States don't manage that. The average number of strides an American takes daily is just 4,774. This has dire effects on our health.
But a book by French philosopher reminds us that there is more to walking than exercise.
Hikers in Slovakia pause to rest as they take in the beauty of the mountains. Gros tells us that they are getting more out of the trip than just exercise and a holiday.
(Photo by Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
In his book A Philosophy of Walking, French philosopher Frédéric Gros explores the surprisingly philosophical act of walking. He doesn't mean the light exercise that people try to fit into their busy schedule or our pragmatic walking from point A to point B, but rather the long hikes in nature that give us a chance to escape the day to day.
For Gros, walking is a liberating act that allows us to reconnect with ourselves. Not ourselves as we are introduced at parties or as the face we put on to make it through a long day at the office, but our true selves liberated from worrying about time, social conventions, and our daily cares. A long walk through a forest allows us to connect with the sublime in a way that merely looking at it from a distance does not. Appropriately done, walking allows us to just be in a way that can be hard to come by in our modern, fast-paced lives.
He explains this in a very French manner when he says:
By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it's all very well for psychologists' consulting rooms. But isn't being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake – for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait – a stupid and burdensome fiction? The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.
And he speaks for many hikers when he explains how one can find more life in doing nothing than is often found in a hectic, event filled schedule.
Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints.
As he does prefer hiking over going on a walk in the city park, he says that what urban dwellers out for a walk actually do is "stroll," explaining that:
The urban flâneur does experience walking, but in a way far removed from Nietzsche or Thoreau. Walking in town is torture to the lover of long rambles in nature because it imposes, as we shall see, an interrupted, uneven rhythm.
But even this has meaning for him. He invokes Walter Benjamin and declares the urban walker to be "subversive" with respect to the urban phenomena of "solitude, speed, dubious business politics, and consumerism" in that they relish the anonymity of the crowd, are going nowhere fast, and see advertisements and sales like everybody else but manage to stroll past them.
Even if you can't go hiking down a winding country trail regularly, walking can have a philosophical benefit for you by placing you both within and without the modern metropolis.
Plus, walking was a vital part of many philosophers' processes.
Professor Gros mentions several great thinkers who took long walks, explaining their habits and how it related to their work.
He opens with Nietzsche, who was an avid walker. Originally used as a way to avoid the crippling pain of his migraine headaches, Nietzsche later found that his thought was stimulated by the long walks he took past rivers, forests, lakes, and Alpine peaks. He found walking a vital part of his process saying,
We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors — walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.
His walks were a source of inspiration, and it is no coincidence that his most productive era was when he lived Sils Maria and was able to hike through the Alps. He only ceased his walks when his physical and mental health deteriorated, and he was forced into a wheelchair.
Immanuel Kant was also a regular walker, with an emphasis on regular. He took his daily walk at precisely five every day, and his neighbors were said to set their clocks to his routine. He only deviated from this rigid schedule twice, once to buy a book and once to join a rush to a newspaper publisher to get news on the outbreak of the French revolution.
Unlike Nietzsche's hiking, however, Kant's walks were not a direct part of his writing process. They were instead part of his extremely fine-tuned routine that he credited for his philosophical output. The walking was for his physical health, which he took pride in, and a chance not to have to think for a few minutes. Given his incredible output, the breaks were well deserved.
Outside of philosophy, many geniuses have understood the benefits of walking. According to local lore, Beethoven regularly took long walks in the Vienna Woods when he lived in Mödling, Austria in search of inspiration, and he often carried pens and paper just in case he found it. Charles Dickens enjoyed a walk when he couldn't sleep and saw walking as a way to keep himself sane.
Perhaps it's time to stop looking at walking as a way to get from A to B or as a light exercise and start viewing it as something more fundamental — a chance to more fully connect with ourselves, nature, and take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. While not all of us can take five-hour treks like Nietzsche, most of us can find the time for a stroll in the park.
The findings of this study are stunning: in a 16-hour waking day, adults are sedentary for 12.3 hours.
The first time I met my mother-in-law, my wife had warned me that I might find her cooking habits odd. Having grown up in rural Isaan she was accustomed to squatting while preparing meals. In fact, my wife continued, whenever she visited Thailand her entire family ate on the ground, alternating between squatting and sitting in various positions.
Rather than strange I found it pretty cool. Moreover such an approach is biomechanically healthier than many of our habits—squatting while using the bathroom is also better for our bodies than sitting with our knees crammed up toward our intestines. Civilization has provided a series of physical blunders in many regards. The way we treat our bodies in the “civilized West” is killing us.
Don’t take my word for it. A new study published in Annals of Internal Medicine found something that has long been an object of speculation: too much sitting puts us at risk of early death. Previous research discovered our sedentary habits to be as unhealthy as smoking cigarettes. This large study of nearly 8,000 black and white adults over age 45, led by Columbia University associate research scientist Keith M. Diaz, found your risk of early death increases the longer you sit.
Over a four-year period, sedentary time of adults was measured using a hip-mounted accelerometer. This research grew out of a national study, REGARDS, which investigated why black people had a greater risk of strokes than white people. The results are stunning: in a 16-hour waking day, adults are sedentary for 12.3 hours.
While no specific duration is the magical cut-off for decreasing risk of early death, researchers discovered those sedentary for more than 13 hours have a 200 percent increased risk than those sitting for under 11. Breaking up the day into shorter durations, those sitting more than 90 minutes at a time double their risk than those getting up before the 90-minute mark.
While Diaz realizes that movement is necessary, how much is debatable. He thinks advice to “move more” is vague and unlikely to change sedentary habits. He continues:
We think a more specific guideline could read something like, ‘For every 30 consecutive minutes of sitting, stand up and move/walk for five minutes at brisk pace to reduce the health risks from sitting.’
Early death is not the only negative health outcome of too much sitting, researchers note in the study. It is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular disease-related risk factors, including obesity and body-mass index. Sedentary behavior also puts one at an increased risk of depression and other mental health problems.
The human body was designed by nature for movement, so it makes sense excessive sitting slowly destroys our bodies and minds. General health guidelines posit that two-and-a-half hours of brisk movement, including cardio-related activities, alongside two days of weight training, aid in alleviating the above problems.
While exact numbers are hard to quantify I’d place the above as the bare minimum. While not a fan of excessive exercise, a little daily movement combats the ravages of time. Increase time and decrease risks. Mixing up your movement vocabulary with cardio, strength training, yoga, and mediation (alongside other regenerative techniques, such as myofascial release and Feldenkrais) provides the broadest range of benefits.
We all have different vocations in varied environments, however. Diaz knows that the same advice cannot work for everyone. At the most basic level, he concludes:
If you have a job or lifestyle where you have to sit for prolonged periods, the best suggestion I can make is to take a movement break every half hour. Our findings suggest this one behavior change could reduce your risk of death.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Want to think more creatively? Move your body, and move away from your emotional baseline—in any direction.
Humans have a complicated relationship with walking. This wasn’t always so. British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey identified marks of bipedalism dating back 3.7 million years in Tanzania—it’s an old endeavor indeed. The story of our uprightness was, for most of history, one of survival and thriving. Today the tale of our peculiar relationship to gravity is being written much differently.
Bipedalism conferred onto us two distinct advantages. First, it helped us gaze longer into the landscape than quadrupeds, who must rely on mountaintops and trees to acquire such spatial information. This helped us quickly identify prey and predator, both of our species and others. Our reaction time increased.
Secondly, and more importantly for this story, the ability to walk turned us into efficient communicators. As a social animal the extra distance offered by bipedalism let us signal across large expanses. Creative means of communication developed. Walking and creativity developed together.
Was walking considered a creative endeavor, however? Utilitarian, definitely. Every facet of our existence relied on an ability to travel long distances (as well as, in the early days of agriculture, walk around tending to crops). Today nomadism is romanticized, but for millions of years it was necessary for survival.
The more sedentary the world has become, the more the primitive act of walking is romanticized. Gardens erected by 17th-century British aristocracy were our introduction to what would become public parks—specific locations of recreation and retreat to spend hours meandering through. To celebrate, poets and thinkers poured accolades on our simplest and most profound example of biomechanics.
Modern activities for creative problem solving include daydreaming, sleep, and cardiovascular exercise. Walking appears to be a more benign solution, with the environment often being touted as the catalyst for ingenuity. Stanford researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz wanted to know if the brain-body connection offered by walking alone is enough to kickstart creative juices. Their answer is yes.
The team conducted four experiments to better understand how walking affects creative thinking, with two tests administered to participants. Guilford’s alternate uses (GUA) test is used to score on levels of originality, flexibility, fluency, and elaboration, while the compound remote associated (CRA) test was developed by social psychologist Martha Mednick in 1962 to score creative potential.
In the first experiment participants completed the two tests while seated and then while walking on a treadmill (to factor for environmental influence). In the next they were tested while seated and then walking, walking and then seated, and seated twice. In the third experiment they walked outdoors, and in the fourth a variety of situations were tested: sitting inside, walking on a treadmill, walking outside, or being rolled around on a wheelchair outdoors.
While reams of research exist on the topic related to cardiovascular performance, the Stanford team wanted to know if our simplest form of locomotion was similarly influential. To counter previous research, they write:
Asking people to take a 30-min run to improve their subsequent seated creativity would be an unhappy prescription for many people. Thus, the current research examined the more practical strategy of taking a short walk.
Their assessment? Walking encourages creativity. In three of the alternate uses studies the numbers were profound: 81%, 88%, and 100% of participants were more creative walking than sitting, including on the treadmill. They believe this research not only has an important effect on workplace environments, but should be considered much earlier in life:
While schools are cutting back on physical education in favor of seated academics, the neglect of the body in favor of the mind ignores their tight interdependence, as demonstrated here.
How could walking at a regulated pace on a machine while facing a white wall promote creativity? The researchers believe that a “complex causal pathway” exists between the physiology of walking and proximal cognitive processes.
While exercise is perceived to be inspirational, they believe less strenuous activity like walking also opens up creative pathways between body and brain. Performing beyond your “natural stride” is cognitively demanding, they write, while one’s natural gait allows their brain’s default mode network to kick in.
They admit that environment does matter in certain situations, however. Novelty is important both as inspiration and distraction. Where you walk influences creative potential, though only if you become caught in surrounding circumstances:
Walking outdoors on a busy campus did not significantly increase appropriate novelty compared with walking indoors, although the more varied stimulation did appear to increase novelty. This suggests that walking may be effective in many locations that do not have acute distractions.
As movement is a natural mood enhancer, a link between positive mood and divergent thinking may play a role in these scores. The authors note that negative moods have also been shown to increase creativity as well, so it appears that any movement away from an emotional baseline is useful for creative thinking.
The exact causes as to why walking inspire creativity are still unknown, though this study puts forward a number of potential reasons. Most important, the authors conclude, is that we move. Data might be mixed but anecdotes and test scores are not.
In her book, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit believes modern walking culture was initiated as a response to the repetitive mechanisms demanded of our bodies during the Industrial Revolution. There’s a huge creative difference between building a car and repeatedly constructing one cog in the assembly line of cars. Walking today might be a continued form of resistance to “the postindustrial, postmodern loss of space, time, and embodiment.”
Which is a self-fulfilling prophecy in an age of screens demanding constant attention. Does walking while staring at your palm affect creativity? Perhaps the Stanford team can tackle this question next. Until then, put down the device and hit the ground, even if for a block. Your brain will thank you for it.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Want to improve your mood? This study recommends you get walking, even for a short time, and even if your surroundings aren't picturesque.
If you have ever wanted a pick-me-up and an excuse to move a little, you finally have it. A new study from Iowa State University has found that simply walking for a short period of time can improve mood substantially. This effect remained even when attempts to make the walk less pleasant were instituted. Jeffrey Conrath Miller and Zlatan Krizan, professors in psychology, published their study in Emotion and suggest that walking by itself, rather than setting, pace, or other external factors, is the key element in the resulting mood enhancement.
The study involved 232 undergraduate students who were first asked to either sit or walk around during a viewing of a familiar and unfamiliar environment. During the second phase of the study the participants were asked to tour a “drab” setting, again while either sitting or walking. In the final section, they simply walked on a treadmill in a small controlled room. Mood was measured by means of the PANAS (Positive And Negative Affect Schedule) test at various points before and after the activities were completed.
The results were clear: merely walking dramatically improved the moods of the students involved, especially when compared to the students who did a similar activity while seated. The effect remained even when the environment changed to the duller possibilities.
In the second part of the study, the researchers decided to add another element to see how strong the effect was: they tested whether the mood boost measured before could withstand the knowledge of something unpleasant while walking. Being that the test subjects were students who were participating as part of a research-participation course requirement; the dread-causing idea was:
“After the tour you will have 10 minutes to write an essay that is 2 full pages in length about the structural elements of the building”.
Even this terrifying idea, which was intended to sour their opinion of the walk they were taking, was unable to reduce the positive gains of walking by much, despite the expressed expectation by the subjects that they would feel worse. The students found out after their mood was measured that they also didn’t have to write the essay. This elation was not recorded.
The authors did, however, have to conceal the purpose of the actions from the subjects during the experiment to avoid corrupted data. Because of this they cannot say for certain that it was the walking that caused the improved mood, but they can rule out several other possible factors.
The idea that movement improves mood goes back to long ago. Charles Darwin himself supposed that: “Now with animals of all kinds, the acquirement of almost all their pleasures, with the exception of those of warmth and rest, are associated with active movements.” This study seems to support this. So if you want to feel better, get moving.
And if you need another reason to stretch your legs: