Bicycle commuting is slowly becoming a mainstream (and healthier) alternative to the grind of the daily drive. In Portland, OR, a full 7 percent of commuters now cycle to work, and bike lane congestion is becoming a problem there and in other cities, including Oxford, England.
If bike lane traffic is getting you down, there’s an even simpler way to get yourself a healthy commute: walk (or run) to work. It sounds so simple—no expensive gear; no bike lanes, racks, or locks; no helmets. Just get on your feet and go!
In reality, of course, your ability to commute on foot depends on how far you live from work, and there are some practical issues to consider before you simply start strolling —starting with time management. But if you live within three miles of your workplace, walking really is a simple and surprisingly healthy alternative to driving. (It’s also a lot cheaper!)
Some people go even further. Paul Schoen, a Portland resident, has been running the 4.5 miles to and from his job downtown for about three years. He listed several unexpected pleasures in an interview with The FruitGuys Magazine: “Beating cars out of downtown gridlock. Endorphins galore. Vitamin D. Exploring neighborhoods. Having an extra beer at dinner because I just burned an extra 500 calories.”
Do his friends and coworkers think he’s insane? “Yes, but some have also called it inspiring. My wife, who swore I was crazy, now does it too!”
Advantages of a Walk Commute
Health. The pioneering Greek doctor Hippocrates, who lived more than 2,000 years ago, considered walking to be man's best medicine. Modern studies show that this hasn’t changed. A massive meta-study of 459,000 healthy people by University College London found that daily walking (of five and a half miles or more per week) reduced heart attacks and strokes by 31 percent, and the overall risk of death by 32 percent. These results held true for men and women, young and old, heart disease patients and postmenopausal women. And the benefits increased steadily with the amount walked.
Stress relief. The longer commute creates a clearer distinction between your stressful workplace and your (hopefully) more relaxed home life. It’s like an air lock from a high-pressure to a low-pressure environment, with simple markers along the way to help you transition: the corner store, cresting that little hill, turning into your street.
Improving the environment. “Walking certainly is the ultimate green transport,” noted Martin Parretti, the cofounder of walkit.com. The British website helps urban walkers plan their routes, factoring in speed, circular vs. linear routes, congestion, staircases, and air pollution. Parretti spelled out the advantages of ambling to The FruitGuys Magazine: “Every journey walked instead of driven is a car not on the road. ...That’s less congestion, and less pollution emitted into the air, and that means cleaner air for us all to breathe.”
Mental focus. While you walk, your brain keeps working away subconsciously (if you can resist reading Facebook on your smartphone). Many people find that answers to problems at work (or home) pop into their head spontaneously as they amble along. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”
Beauty. Martin Parretti also noted the aesthetic advantages of leaving your car behind. If you are cocooned away in a metal box, you miss the delights of the unexpected space or building or building detail (a pattern in the bricks, a decorative gargoyle, a tiled entrance lobby); a park in the first blush of spring; previously unnoticed public art; interesting signage and shops; the beauty of the urban space.
Planning Makes Perfect
A walking commute requires careful planning. As with any new exercise regime, you should consult your doctor before beginning. Here are the three things you should consider:
- Comfortable shoes and rain gear (in season) are a must. You’ll probably want some kind of comfortable bag or backpack to carry your stuff.
- Do a test walk. Walk your planned route on a weekend first, when you won’t be stressed about running late, to get a clear sense of how long it will take and other practicalities.
- Time management. Be realistic about how long your walk commute takes and leave on time. Most people walk around three miles in an hour, but your rate may vary by day, and it’s difficult to make up time if you leave late. If you get to work late, stressed, and sweaty, you’ll have lost most of the advantages of your active commute.
It’s also important to have a backup plan in case of a late start or a twisted ankle: a car or bike in the garage, a mass transit alternative, or a taxi ride.
Walking may not be practical for people who live a long way from their workplace or who have to pick up children on a short time schedule. But even for these folks, a hybrid commute may be possible, where you park along the way or mix foot power and mass transit. Both Schoen and Paretti noted that walking or running lets you take shortcuts that even bicycles can’t navigate.
Once you start to stroll, you’ll understand why noted figures from Albert Einstein and Charles Dickens to Henry David Thoreau and Virginia Woolf considered walking an essential part of their daily routines. As Thoreau noted back in 1840, “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution. He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association; his work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.