Walking and the Happy Brain: A Love Story
Research shows that walking has many benefits—but it's also a pretty darn good family adventure
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
On a recent Saturday morning, my husband and two young daughters and I went out for a family hike. We set our sights on a small hill on the shadeless mesa west of Santa Fe, New Mexico, that slopes down to the Rio Grande. Tetilla Peak is surrounded by rough and rolling BLM land and a maze of mostly unmarked dirt roads. There’s no trail to the summit; the trick is to find the right road and drive as close as you can to the base of the mountain, and then get out and walk. The roads veer off in all directions and become progressively narrower and rougher until they peter out altogether.
We parked the car on a scrubby dead end peppered with bullet shells. Almost immediately, it became clear that we didn’t stand a chance of making it to the top. Tetilla was still too far away; at least two ridges separated us from it, and we had only a couple hours before we were due at a birthday party. We set off anyway, vaguely aiming for the rounded summit, turning around every so often to orient ourselves to our car.
On another day, rambling cross-country—without a trail to follow or a specific destination—might have irritated me, but it felt so good to stretch my legs that, for once, I just went with it. There were dusty badger dens to investigate and a shot-up target propped on a fence post to prowl for bullet casings. There were thick clumps of yucca cacti to weave through, a roadrunner skittering through the dust, and the sun and the blue sky and the four of us and our dog, together, no longer hiking, capital H, but simply wandering.
The many advantages of walking are well documented. In his research over the past decade, explorer Dan Buettner identified walking as a common practice among centenarian residents of longevity hot spots, or Blue Zones, where the secret to staying alive isn’t hewing to strict fitness regimens as much as living a life in motion. According to recent studies, walking lowers our risk for cardiovascular disease and breast cancer, and walking outside in nature has been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones in the body.
But it’s the innate, nonquantifiable pleasures that make walking so appealing. Thoreau was enamored with a sort of “sauntering,” as he called it in his 1862 essay “Walking,” that “has nothing in it akin to taking exercise…but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.” In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, essayist Rebecca Solnit acknowledges that walking is both physical and meditative. It “strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing.”
Walking with kids is the most underrated family adventure, perhaps because it’s also the most basic and accessible. It’s not flashy or fancy or fast. You don’t need special equipment, trails, a mountain, or wilderness of any kind. You just need a sidewalk or a shoulder or a faint path through the trees. You don’t even have to walk to anywhere. You can just wander. When you walk with kids, you slow to their pace, and notice things you might otherwise miss, like the man who tips his cowboy hat to you, the artist bent over his easel, and the thin skin of ice on the creek that will be gone by the afternoon.
For the past month, our family has been on a major walking jag. When you spend an entire season on crutches, as I did last year, walking becomes the greatest thing ever.
Most mornings I walk with my daughters three-quarters of a mile to school. I bring the dog and a cup of coffee. Usually we leave the house too late and almost always have to run the last block, and I turn into my mother, calling “Pick up your feet!” But even as the words are out of my mouth, I know I don’t really mean them. I don’t want us to rush. Girlhood goes by in a flash, and being tardy seems a small price to pay for the chance to stomp through frozen puddles and dawdle to watch the crows cawing on the telephone lines overhead.
To be sure, our route to school isn’t completely bucolic. The cars drive too fast down Palace Avenue, and, despite repeated phone calls to the city, there’s still no crosswalk at the busy four-way stop sign that drivers routinely blow through without as much as a look. But we’re teaching the girls to walk with ears open, eyes ahead, facing traffic and oncoming risk—important skills for all of life.
Last weekend, we went for another walk, this time following a clear path to the top of Buckman Mesa, 1,000 feet above the Rio Grande. It was a proper hike, but it felt more like a ramble, unpressured by time or objectives. We lingered for a while on the summit, watching the river glitter like snakeskin beneath us and peering into a creepy, deep hole—a steam vent from an ancient volcano. In the sandy arroyo at the bottom, the girls stopped for what seemed like an eternity to rummage around in a pile of rocks that had sheared off from the side of the canyon wall. They wanted to bring some home to make clay, they explained, as they filled their arms and baseball hats with large chunks of reddish dried mud. They walked the last half mile like this, heads bowed, arms weighed down by their bounty, chittering quietly to each other about their good fortune and their grand schemes.
Steve and I drifted ahead, looking back every so often to make sure they were still in sight and not getting mauled by mountain lions. The sun was sinking, and the girls were making such slow progress. Already their project had begun to exasperate me: I pictured them at home with the clay, streaking every white wall with muddy fingerprints, tracking it in on their sneakers. I opened my mouth to yell, “C’mon!”
In that moment, I saw us as though from above. I saw my husband strolling easily beside me, our girls sauntering through a sandy wash, carrying armfuls of mud, the dog dashing back and forth, all of us moving together, at our own pace. So ordinary, really, and yet all too rare.
I closed my mouth and kept walking.