on walking (and exercise)




Pressed with conflicting thoughts of love and fear
I parted from thee, Friend! and took my way
Through the great City, pacing with an eye
Downcast, ear sleeping, and feet masterless
That were sufficient guide unto themselves,
And step by step went pensively.

— William Wordsworth, “St. Paul’s”




“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

— Henry David Thoreau



Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass



“Hiking — “I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike! Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

John Muir



“I love the leisurely amplitude, the spaciousness, of taking a walk, of heading somewhere, anywhere, on foot. I love the sheer adventure of it, of setting out and taking off. You cross a threshold and you’re on your way. Time is suspended. …the rhythm and pace of a walk — the physical activity — can get you going and keep you grounded. It’s a kind of light meditation. … walking seems to bring a different sort of alertness, an associative kind of thinking, a drifting state of mind.

“A walk is a way of entering the body, and also of leaving it. I am both here and there, betwixt and between, strolling along, observing things, thinking of something else. I move in a liminal space. … walking often quickens my thoughts, inducing a flow of ideas.”

— Edward Hirsch






This is a brief essay on walking. I fear it’s a subject that has already been beaten to death.

I have always been a walker. It began at a very early age.

I was raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We lived there until I was age twelve. My parents gave me and my siblings a lot of freedom, as long as it was exercised responsibly. This included things like going places by oneself. I was allowed to walk places by myself — such as to school, to stores, and to the public library from around age six or seven.

Cambridge was a very walkable city. Harvard Yard was only two or three blocks away and Harvard Square close by.

At that time, the red brick sidewalks, which I loved, were very wide, which I loved. They were narrowed in the 1950’s when the wonderful wooden trolley cars that ran up and down Massachusetts Avenue were discontinued and replaced by buses.

When I was age twelve, my parents moved us to the suburbs. I was extremely disappointed. In the suburbs, one needed a car to go just about any place. This meant having to be driven everyplace by my parents until I got a driver’s license at age seventeen.





I moved to Manhattan after graduating from college and lived there for several years. I absolutely loved the same thing about Manhattan that I had loved about Cambridge: that it is such a walkable city. I lived right off Broadway in a studio apartment in the West 80’s for a few years. I particularly liked strolling along Broadway, an avenue that runs the entire length of Manhattan and further north into the Bronx. It seemed like all humanity was concentrated in this one thoroughfare. The “geography” of the neighborhood, which is to say the layout of the streets on the Upper West Side, seemed to funnel everyone into one stream, so to speak.

I once said to an acquaintance of mine who also lived in Manhattan and loved it, “When I am walking in Manhattan, I feel like I am walking on air.” Indeed, when strolling the sidewalks of Manhattan, I would often be in a trance like state where I was only half aware of progress and distance covered and was fully absorbed in everything around me, there was so much to see.

In several other cities I have traveled to in the USA, I have observed that people don’t walk. Dallas, for example, where I attended a business meeting in the 1990’s. The streets were broad thoroughfares with a couple of lanes, like a highway. One observed hardly any pedestrians. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where we used to visit my in-laws, was more or less the same.






Walking seems to be a near perfect form of exercise. One can do it even when one is out of shape, and it won’t put undue stress on the body.

Walking is just plain enjoyable. I find that — compared, say, to going to a gym — it is a way to get exercise without it seeming to be a chore. (See Postscript.)






Walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.

Often, I will start out on a walk with no timetable or agenda. (I find it best not to have a timetable; being under a time constraint defeats the whole purpose of a walk.) During the walk, my mind will wander and won’t be focused on anything in particular. Then, ideas will begin to float up and into my consciousness: a new perspective on some problem that has been perplexing me; a new idea about something to write.

This kind of mental stimulation, occurring as it does when I am not actively engaged in mental work, is extremely pleasurable. I will get excited about new ideas for creative undertakings that occur to me and will feel the urge to rush home and plunge into them.

During walks, I also find myself sorting out things in my mind. Personal relationships, for example. Difficulties I’ve been experiencing with relationships.

Walking can also be an ego transcending experience. Removed from bumptious activity that may make you feel self important, you have become one of a crowd. At a plebeian level. A pedestrian amongst other pedestrians. All equal, equally hoofing it, that is.






Walt Whitman loved to take long strolls, often with friends, often at night.

Whitman said to his Boswell, Horace Traubel, that the weather didn’t bother him. He would walk at all hours, day or night, and would not mind if it was raining or there was otherwise inclement weather.

Whitman felt and took exquisite, sensual pleasure from things like the warm sun and the breeze. In his great poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” he refers to “the just-felt breezes,” by which he meant a gentle breeze caressing him.






With respect to the weather when I walk, I pretty much don’t mind what the conditions are either. Like Whitman, I take great pleasure in sunshine and fresh air.

I love to walk in the summer, don’t mind hot weather a bit, and this includes extremely hot days. I could never understand why some people always complain about the heat, are always cautioning you to beware of the sun.

I love the feeling of the sun on my face and arms, like to get a tan. I like to work up a sweat. I feel it’s very healthy to do so; it sweats the toxins right out of you.

In hot weather, especially, I drink huge amounts of water before, during, and after a walk. I rarely drink any other type of liquid. This seems to be very good for one’s health. I actually enjoy getting very thirsty and then having the satisfaction of drinking to quench my thirst. Under such conditions, water goes from being something ordinary to a wonderfully refreshing drink.

Like Whitman, I absolutely love a summer breeze.

I love to walk on a sultry summer day. I take great pleasure in the smell of the grass and herbage.

Often, I am reluctant to go for a walk in foul weather. But, when it comes to cold, biting days — the crisp, clear ones — I find that the bracing air actually feels great. I am a fresh air fiend. It seems to me from experience that the cold air kills germs, makes one practically immune to winter colds. (This has been disputed. Some experts say that cold air can exacerbate colds and flu. The question is yet to be resolved.) It’s invigorating too.






As I grow older, I tend to wake up much earlier than I used to. I often will wake up very early. It’s an ideal time of the day to take a walk.

In fact, I would advise, if you intend to take a long walk (as I often do), start as early as you can. It’s hard to get going later in the day, and, as the day gets later, one wants to get home.

I find that when I am tired and achy, as I often am, or feel I need more sleep (in the morning, after having woken up), once I set afoot a lot of the tiredness and achiness goes away. The same is true if I am feeling under the weather. Walking seems to cure ills, and rather than tiring me (although there is a sort of “good tiredness” resulting from a long walk), a walk seems to make me more alert and less fatigued, mentally at least.

I feel that a lot of fatigue that people experience (in general, that is; not from walking per se) is actually the result of tedium and boredom, of being inside too much doing repetitive work requiring concentration. So that walking, which is supposed to wear you out, has the opposite effect.






I like to take marathon walks, into Manhattan or back or from one end of Manhattan Island (south or north) to the other. I am pleasantly surprised by my stamina. I rarely get tired. Sometimes, I will admit, I do get tired. But, more often than not, I seem to be able to just keep going, chugging along, knowing I will eventually reach the end point.

One thing or factor that I have experienced as a walker is second wind. The solution for getting tired seems to be walk a little bit more. It’s counterintuitive, but I swear it’s true. I will walk six or seven miles, perhaps more, and begin to feel very tired. I will sit down on a bench for a few minutes. Or perhaps stop for longer and get a cup of coffee. When I start walking again, I am surprised to find that I don’t feel tired any longer, and that, once I am walking, I feel energetic and limber. It seems that with walking, the more one does, the more one wants to do. In contrast to other forms of exercise.

As I have said, it’s not good if one has to hurry. Ruins the entire walk. Walking at a moderate but reasonably brisk pace seems to work best for me, and to the extent that I do get tired near the end, it’s a very pleasurable feeling.

The length of the walk does not matter as much as that it be enjoyable and relaxing.



— Roger W. Smith

March 2016 (updated September 2017)









Since posting this essay, I have been doing some thinking about walking as it pertains and relates to the subject of exercise in general.

Walking has helped me to reduce and control my weight, and it may have helped to lower my blood pressure, too.

It can help to alleviate and shorten occasional periods of depression.

I have been thinking about walking vis-à-vis other forms of exercise.

This past summer, I went to a local Y with my older son. He was working out there on a regular basis for a while, almost every day. I was surprised how bright and clean it was. The exercise machines were state of the art.

We spent about an hour there, each of us on a treadmill.

There was a TV you could watch right there on the exercise machine, but I got awfully bored, as well as tired, and kept thinking, when is this going to end, when will my son say, mercifully, “time’s up”?

It seems to me — I have myself experienced it — that such exercise regimens frequently start out good and then peter out after a while.

You will make a resolution, say, to work out for 45 minutes to an hour first thing every morning. You will do it religiously for a while. You’ll be feeling a lot better about yourself and asking yourself, “why wasn’t I doing this before”?

Then, suddenly, you’ll stop.

I believe that for exercise to be done regularly and over a long, sustained period of time, it’s got to be fun — psychologically enjoyable — and not seem like a CHORE.

Think of one’s childhood. One is all the time playing. One is not even aware (hardly) that he or she is getting healthy exercise.

When walking, you can

— stop and get a bite to eat;

— people watch;

— view streetscapes and scenery;

— shop or window shop.

And, you can vary your route.

I firmly believe that variety is the key, makes all the difference here. Exercise routines — such as walking on a treadmill every morning — can’t fail to become monotonous. Which is why, in my opinion, they often fail.






See also the following posts of mine



“Manhattan Island from Bottom to Top; Walking as Exercise”




“Thoreau on walking”




“Walt Whitman on walking”


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