A Case for Walking

Why walking helps us think, and can help us pray too.

By Zoe Matties, Manitoba Program Manager

March 6, 2024

My dog, Pippin, and I go for a walk every single day. Rain or shine, hot or cold, his cold nose on my hand and vigorous tail wags nudge me towards the door. I gratefully, if sometimes begrudgingly, acknowledge how good it is that he gets me outside and moving about every day.

Perhaps dogs know intuitively what scientists are now confirming about the connections between the mind and the feet. Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust, her book on the history of walking, “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

Since at least the time of Greek philosophers like Aristotle, people have found deep and intuitive connections between walking and thinking. Famous writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Albert Einstein, and William Wordsworth were all regular walkers. Friedrich Nietzsche even went so far as to say, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

What is it about walking that induces thinking? The answer has to do with the body’s chemistry. Walking increases your heart rate and gets blood flowing to all of your body’s organs, including the brain. Studies have shown that during or after exercise, people perform better on memory and attention tests. Feris Jabor writes in the New Yorker,

“Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.”

Researchers also learned that where we walk and how we walk changes how we think. People who walked among trees performed better on memory and attention tests than people who walked on busy city streets. And the pace of our feet can change with our mood and vice versa. We can actively change the pace of our thoughts just by walking faster or slower.

I find that one of the reasons I enjoy walking with Pippin is because it connects me to my place. On more than one occasion I have discovered something about my neighbourhood that I never would have known had I been driving. We often encounter wildlife, and I have logged several new bird species in my Merlin app on these walks.

Walking is often simply a practical necessity—the way by which we go from one location to another. But it can be more. It can become a ritual, a prayer, or a meditation. It can become, as Rebecca Solnit puts it, “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned.” And I’d add, a way in which we can connect to God through our interaction with the place around us.

This season of Lent, A Rocha Manitoba has been setting aside a time to intentionally walk and pray together. Each week we are exploring a different contemplative prayer practice that can be done while walking. We have explored the Ignatian Examen prayer through the lens of water and Lectio Terra, the practice of reading scripture and creation together. It has been a fruitful exercise to see what thoughts, experiences, and revelations we come to as we walk and pray together. Through walking, we not only explore our physical surroundings, but also cultivate a deeper sense of connection to our place, discovering hidden wonders and encountering unexpected moments of grace.

As Pippin and I continue our daily walks, I’m inspired to embrace walking not just as a means of transportation but as a sacred practice—a communion with God, creation, and myself. I invite you to explore walking in this way as well. May the steps you take be imbued with intentionality and reverence, leading you to a deeper understanding of your place in the world and your relationship with the Creator.

Photos by: Tim Cruickshank

Join the Walk!

Walk with us this Lent

You are invited on a lenten journey focused on walking and praying with creation. Each week will feature a different contemplative spiritual practice, such as Lectio Terra, or the Ignatian Daily Examen, meant to help you take your prayer practice into creation.

Join the Walk!