September 5, 2013 10:56:06 AM
Solvitur ambulando -- "It is solved by walking." This was the solution of St. Augustine to one of Zeno's paradoxes, the thought experiment in which the 5th century B.C. philosopher Zeno of Elea used the concept of the infinite divisibility of time and space to prove that we can never actually arrive at a destination. And so came St. Augustine's very efficient answer.
But as it turns out, there are many other problems and paradoxes that can be solved by walking. For instance: in our culture of overwork, burnout and exhaustion, in which we're connected and distracted 24/7 from most things that are truly important in our lives, how do we tap into our creativity, our wisdom, our capacity for wonder, our well-being and our ability to connect with what we really value? Solvitur ambulando.
In my own life, for almost as long as I can remember, walking has definitely been the solution. When I was a girl growing up in Greece, my favorite poem was "Ithaca" by the Greek poet Cavafy. My sister Agapi and I had the poem memorized long before we could actually understand what it really meant. It opens:
When you set out on the voyage to Ithaca, pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge.
But over the years I came to realize that a journey -- one that can also be full of adventure and knowledge -- doesn't have to involve planes and cars and passports. The benefits of a journey are always available simply by walking.
There are, of course, many theories on walking, and different thinkers have taken very different approaches. For Thomas Jefferson, the purpose of walking was to clear the mind of thoughts. "The object of walking is to relax the mind," he wrote. "You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk. But divert your attention by the objects surrounding you."
For others, like Nietzsche, walking was essential for thinking. "All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking," he wrote in "Twilight of the Idols." Likewise, for Hemingway, walking was a way of developing his best thoughts when mulling on a problem. "I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out," he wrote in "A Moveable Feast." "It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood."
Less subjective are the scientific studies that increasingly show the benefits of walking and other forms of exercise to be very real and very tangible. "It's become clear that this is a good intervention, particularly for mild to moderate depression," said Jasper Smits, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University.
Laurel Lippert Fox, a psychologist in Santa Monica, has taken the idea one step further (pun slightly intended) and actually has walking sessions with her patients. As she says, "It's so much more dynamic than sitting in your Eames chair."
Research has also shown similar benefits to simply being around nature. One study showed that spending time in natural settings makes us more generous and more community-oriented, a conclusion that has "implications not only for city planning but also for indoor design and architecture," according to the study's co-author Richard Ryan, of the University of Rochester Medical Center. Another study by Dutch researchers showed that those who live within 1 kilometer of a park or wooded area suffer lower rates of depression and anxiety. Even if we don't live amid trees and greenery, we can always take a walk through them. And when scaled up, this could have real societal consequences. "As health-care costs spiral out of control, it behooves us to think about our green space in terms of preventive health care," said Dr. Kathryn Kotrla, of the Texas A-and-M College of Medicine.
Even more intriguing is the link between the physical act of walking and thinking. A study in the European Journal of Developmental Psychology found that cognitive performance was increased when the subject was actually walking.
Perhaps forcing the brain to process a new environment allows it to engage it more fully. That's one of the theories of how we awaken our capacity for creativity. In "Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently," Gregory Berns writes that "new insights come from people and new environment -- any circumstance in which the brain has a hard time predicting what will come next."
So the next time you have something to work out, take a walk. It makes us healthier, it makes us fitter, and it enhances every kind of cognitive performance, from creativity to planning and scheduling. And best of all, it reconnects us to ourselves.