Author believes walking’s healing powers can change the world


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In this worthy addition to the nonfiction walking canon, Ottawa-based feature writer-editor and avid trekker Dan Rubinstein tests his hypothesis that walking can fix -- or at least patch -- a broken world.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/04/2015 (2894 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In this worthy addition to the nonfiction walking canon, Ottawa-based feature writer-editor and avid trekker Dan Rubinstein tests his hypothesis that walking can fix — or at least patch — a broken world.

He quits his job (managing editor of Canadian Geographic) and leaves his family (with their backing) to traipse wilderness and cityscapes in Canada, the U.S. and U.K., and to commune with diverse experts worldwide who, like him, suspect that walking can better society.

Rubinstein characterizes this as “an experiment both personal and journalistic, an attempt to understand my (walking) addiction, to see how much (societal) repair might be within range.”

It is in probing this second, broader question that Rubinstein distinguishes his work from earlier tracts on walking philosophy and history (for example, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust) and countless accounts of personal odysseys (expedition and pilgrimage literature).

In each of the eight chapters, he focuses on a different realm that walking has been shown to benefit, including physical and mental health, politics, the economy and creativity. With the self-assurance, clarity and rigour of an accomplished journalist, Rubinstein weaves his treks (past and current) with historical and contemporary anecdotes and up-to-date studies and statistics, many Canadian. (With this useful detail, the book would have benefitted from an index.)

There are fascinating studies and projects highlighted here. Among them: the Glasgow Health Walk program’s free, regularly held hour-long neighbourhood walks, found to reduce government spending on home care, prescriptions and other medical interventions; and Innu Road, a five-year, 5,000-kilometre series of walks led by aboriginal surgeon Stanley Vollant across Labrador and Quebec, which foster individual and community healing (the subject of Rubinstein’s article, The Walking Cure, in the October 2013 edition of The Walrus).

Underlying themes recur. Walking and the resulting well-being are rooted in our evolution and the natural environment, but we have parted ways with nature. Walking as transportation is now at odds with the clock and our built environment. Walking as medicine clashes with established interests like the pharmaceutical industry. Walking is, well, so pedestrian that it can’t compete with sexier alternatives (primarily flashy cars). We just don’t value it.

Rubinstein’s saddest example of this may be the experience recounted by Dave Sauchyn, a University of Regina climate-change researcher, who appeared before the federal government’s Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development:

“I began my remarks by suggesting that two of Parliament’s most challenging issues, health care and the environment, could be addressed with a single solution: encouraging Canadians to walk… This suggestion was met with spontaneous laughter… I suppose they misinterpreted my sincere advice as an attempt to preface my talk with some humour.”

Born to Walk should be required reading for Canadian politicians, policy-makers, planners and pedestrians.

Near the book’s end, while walking to school, Rubinstein and his daughter are hit by a car. They sustain little in the way of visible injury. Rubinstein maintains his fervent support of the classic walk to school that exemplifies many of the book’s research findings: “It is a regular bout of exercise… It can curb anxiety and spark mental acuity. It treads lightly on the planet. It cuts traffic congestion and makes streets safer and more vibrant… It gives children time with their parents and… an opportunity for graduated independence.”

Having so ably explained walking’s transformative powers, the book’s last pages seem uncharacteristically gimmicky. Rubinstein, whose personal manifesto is “Walk more. Anywhere.” takes this to the extreme. He treads a path of hot coals.

This, he says, is to seek “metaphorical closure” (the book begins with his trudging in snowy Quebec with Dr. Vollant) and to “confront my biggest opponent — myself.”

Funny. He already seemed comfortable in his own skin just talking the talk and walking the walk.


Gail Perry is a Winnipeg writer and long-distance walker, currently preparing for an 1,100-kilometre pilgrimage around the Japanese island of Shikoku.

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