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In Praise of Walking by Shane O'Mara

In Praise of Walking by Shane O'Mara
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“What is it that makes us human?” asks neuroscientist Shane O’Mara at the start of In Praise of Walking. There’s language, of course, and our use of tools; but O’Mara – you may have guessed – proposes another candidate, said Tom Whipple in The Times: bipedalism. Initially, it may seem hyperbolic to place walking on two legs – an ability shared with emus and flamingos – on a par with talking and the ability to make fire. However, O’Mara does a good job of persuading us otherwise. Bipedalism, he points out, “allowed our hunter-gathering ancestors to hold a spear and exhaust the animal they wanted to throw it at”: we can’t run as fast as a deer, but we have more stamina. It also helped with the “gathering”, too. (“Try going blackberry-picking on all fours,” he suggests.) More than this, it defined many aspects of the way we came to live, from our ability to “walk side by side, scanning the horizon while talking to each other”, to our capacity to eat while on the move.

Besides showing that walking was crucial to our past development, O’Mara wants to convince us of its present-day benefits, said Helen Davies in The Sunday Times. Although many thinkers have recognised this (for Hippocrates, it was the “best medicine”; Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that “only thoughts reached by walking have value”), we are at risk of forgetting it in our “increasingly sedentary” world. O’Mara “companionably” takes us through the latest science, citing studies which suggest that walking can protect and repair organs, act as a brake on the ageing of our brains, and “boost creativity”. In Praise of Walking is peppered with insights and facts: did you know, for instance, that a toddler takes on average 2,368 steps, and travels 701 metres, while learning to walk? It is both “convincing and compelling”.

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