Sunday, May 28, 2023

The walking cure: why we should all be putting one foot in front of the other

Annabel Streets is searching for a conifer. It is a bright, early March day and we are looping around the gardens of Fulham Palace in southwest London. She spots what she is looking for: a large spreading yew tree. We stand looking up at the clusters of leathery, spiked leaves and breathe deeply. “Every day I stand under an evergreen tree now,” she says. “I have become obsessed with terpenes.”

Terpenes are a type of organic compound produced by plants, part of a protection system against insects, disease and rot. They are the reason pine trees smell piney and citrus trees smell citrussy. They are also one of the reasons humans are drawn to trees. The presence of these tiny molecules has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Laboratory research has shown that the terpene a-pinene, found in conifers such as our yew tree, could have properties that prevent cancer. Studies on the citrus compound D-limonene suggest it is an effective mood-booster and antidepressant.

“Terpenes are the trees’ own immune system,” says Streets, “and when you walk underneath them you breathe that self-protection mechanism. There are studies showing that the blood pressure of people walking under evergreens was significantly lower than that of the people walking in a control group.”

This is just the start of our walk and only the first of Streets’s remarkable facts. She has just published a book, 52 Ways to Walk, which is full of clearly presented science, nuggets of history and infectious enthusiasm for being out in the world and simply walking as a way of tackling so many of our ills. She’s the ideal companion for an afternoon’s urban ramble.

“While I was writing the book, I found myself thinking of my granny quite often,” she says. “All the things she would say – ‘Go for a walk and take a few deep breaths and then you’ll feel calmer’ – that sort of thing. I thought it was just my granny being whimsical. But it turns out that she was right all along.”

One of the joys of 52 Ways to Walk is discovering that there’s a scientific basis for much of what we’d call common sense or folk wisdom – and so much of it is rooted in leaving the house and going for a walk: getting the sun on your skin can help your immune system, and there’s nothing harmful in getting covered in mud. In fact, it can help your gut health.

As a little girl, Streets fell in love with walking. She remembers being four or five years old and out near her grandparents’ house in Sheringham. The big skies and flat lands of the North Norfolk coast were “amazing, beautiful, these great swathes of sand…” and the small Annabel would walk for miles.

‘When the sun shines down on the water you get twice as much light, so you get twice the serotonin boost’: Annabel Street. Photograph: Kate Peters/The Observer

But in adulthood, she fell into a pattern familiar to many of us – days spent hunching towards a computer, evenings prone on the sofa. Working out in the gym, but using the car to get there. The combination of desk job and driving made her body “rounder, softer, achier, stiffer, stooped” and her mind anxious and unsettled. She made a resolution to do as much as she could on foot, getting a dog and proper wet-weather gear for extra motivation.

For Streets, it was a spark, a gleeful rekindling of an old love affair. “Walking had never seemed more beguiling or thrilling,” she writes in the book’s introduction. Her friends, and especially her family, didn’t catch the same vibe. It was wet. It was cold. It was boring. It was slow. It was just… walking.

“I wanted to show people all the reasons there were to walk,” she says. “Even in the darkness, even in the rain, there will be something that part of us will respond to, whether that’s physiological or emotional or cognitive. I didn’t want to be the person who was just telling everyone to get their 10,000 steps.”

The 52 Ways to Walk project was actually the product of over-enthusiastic research. Streets, who also writes as Annabel Abbs, has written several historical novels, all based on real women, like Lucia Joyce, a professional dancer and the daughter of James Joyce; or Frieda Weekley who eloped with DH Lawrence and is considered to be the inspiration for Lady Chatterley. Streets had been working on a nonfiction book, Windswept, where she walked the routes taken by famous women, such as the artist Georgia O’Keeffe or the nature writer Nan Shepherd. “There was memoir and biography and I had also included a lot of scientific research about walking,” she says. “My editor, quite rightly, insisted I remove it.” Rather than let it go to waste, that research was the start of 52 Ways. “Other people, who were much more expert than me on various topics, were very generous with their knowledge and their time,” she says. “There are shelves and shelves of research on walking, but I think people have largely found it unsexy.”

We have turned on to a path that follows the Thames. Reflected sunlight gives a chrome cast to the river. “It’s magical,” says Streets, looking out at the refracting glitter, “and when the sun shines down on the water like this it means you get twice as much light, so you get twice the serotonin boost and serotonin is what makes us happy.” This is a typical blend of the scientific and the romantic found in the book. For Streets, a waterfall doesn’t stop being inspiring and wonderful when you know that the presence of negative ions, molecules of air and water charged with electricity, are the reason for your lowered heart rate and reduced stress. Studies on the potential effects of the full moon – covering everything from a higher rate of women going into labour to increases in violent crime – are inconclusive, but Streets feels that adds to “the eerie, enigmatic qualities of a moonlit walk”.

Her enthusiasm extends to the extremely practical. She shows me her walking boots which don’t taper, as most shoes do, but let your toes splay naturally. They have thin, flexible soles and no heel, mimicking shoeless walking. “There was an interesting study on people who wore barefoot shoes for six months,” she says. “The muscles in people’s feet improved by 60%. So you are building muscle and, possibly, strengthening the bones.”

She also shows me how to walk, which sounds ridiculous but, as Streets points out, “so many of us walk as though we’ve just come off our laptop. I certainly did.” The trick is to hold your chin parallel to the ground, push your shoulder blades down your back and roll your stomach slightly inwards as though tucking it under your rib cage. You then, with each step, roll through your foot heel-to-toe. It’s basic postural alignment. But for me, having spent most of the previous two months indoors nursing an injured ankle, it feels like someone has suddenly flicked a switch and completed an electrical circuit.

Walkers of all kinds stride through Streets’s book. There are nomads and pilgrims, soldiers and children, protesters and paraders. There is something to learn from everyone, whether that’s the military practice of tabbing – covering mile after mile with a backpack – that is good for both heart and mind, or the mindful breathing that allows Afghan livestock herders to walk far and fast with little fatigue.

In the book, she doesn’t often mention women as a specific group (although the chapter on getting lost makes the interesting point that the observed differences in spatial skills between men and women have nothing to do with the brain and everything to do with cultural conditioning). But in conversation she is a passionate defender of the right of women to walk alone and at all times of day. “I walked from Toulouse to Bordeaux by myself,” she says. “Occasionally, a barge would come down the canal, but there was nothing on the river. There was nothing around me to be scared of.” She talks about silver water and spotting herons and picking wild figs to eat. The only time she felt unsafe was, ironically, in an Airbnb, booked to avoid solo camping, where the promised host couple turned out to be a single man who was too keen for company.

“I wonder if sometimes it’s about perception,” she says, about walking alone. “At home we know all the horror stories and all their locations, but when we’re elsewhere we don’t have that knowledge. We don’t know about the horrible things, so we think we’re safe. And nine times out of 10 we are. We look at women in the past who’ve done big journeys and think they’re intrepid or brave, but they also didn’t have daily news stories about what could go wrong.”

Walking side by side creates another kind of vulnerability, or at least an easy intimacy. Streets cites an anthropological study that suggests a rhythmic pace, coordinated movement and a lack of eye contact make it easy for us to open up as we walk along with another person. And, as we cross a bridge and head back up river, I find myself sharing things about my own life, something I would never usually do while interviewing.

Walking with Annabel Streets means getting caught in the current of her enthusiasm. As a talker and as a writer she’s full of information, but avoids coming off as a preacher or a know-it-all. She is delighted to be out with the blackthorn blossom and the shouts of practising rowers. Her book has this spirit, it wears its research light and it’s suffused with the simple pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other. When Epping Forest comes up in conversation, she zooms in on the map to review this unknown area and rapidly decides she could walk from northeast London to Cambridge in a couple of days, stopping off to see a friend in Saffron Walden. Walking is an activity that can thud with dull-but-virtuous tones, like a solid loaf of too-wholemeal bread, but, for Streets, walking is freedom, an escape for the mind and the body.

“One day last summer, I woke up really early,” she says, “around 5am, no going back to sleep. I got the tube to Victoria and then the train out to Tonbridge. By 9am I was in the middle of Kent. I followed the river all the way up to Maidstone. And, of course, the brilliant thing about rivers is that you don’t need a map.”

Really, the title 52 Ways to Walk is somewhat misleading. There are hundreds of reasons, grouped roughly into a year’s worth of weekly walks. You can get technical with mountains and backpacks, or you could just open the front door and see where the road takes you.

52 Ways to Walk, the Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time, by Annabel Streets, is published by Bloomsbury at £10.99 and is available from at £9.67

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