Hey, brain researchers—yeah, you with the lab coats and electrodes. Where are all the studies on how walks benefit relationships? On why taking a stroll together is as great for romance, family ties and friendship as it is for muscles and Reebok sales? My web sleuthing has turned up no such studies. Well, no biggie. Over the years, I’ve developed plenty of my own theories on what makes walking the best thing for human bonding since the smile:
1. Walks benefit relationships by showing you care.
Going to dinner with someone could just mean you’re hungry. A movie? Maybe you’ve got a crush on Angelina Jolie. But inviting a friend or loved one for a walk shows you really want to spend time with that person. I’ll never forget how, one day in the mid-1980s, my pal Bill offered to walk with me clear across our New Jersey college town so I could buy yarn. He had zero interest in yarn—which is how I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was interested in me. (Yes, he’s the Bill I’m now married to.)
2. Walking is easy.
Unlike playing a sport, there’s no equipment (except sneakers) necessary, no score to keep track of, no court time or tee time to reserve. Unlike meeting for lunch, there are no menus to study or waiters to track down. You can walk often and at the spur of the moment—and if you’re like my friends and me, you’ll pick a route with so few street crossings you could practically do it blindfolded. Except for the occasional need to move around anything in your way, you’ll be free to focus on nothing but each other.
3. Walks benefit relationships by loosening tongues.
Most of my best gabfests with my father and brother have been during walks. Meandering without my chatty mother, we can’t hang back and let her do the talking as we usually do. Plus, I suspect the oxygen-induced brain boost we’re getting from exercising outside helps get our words rolling.
4. Walking really loosens kids’ tongues.
Go on: Ask your offspring, “How was your day?” while you’re all sitting indoors. Then ask the same thing while walking side by side in the fresh air. Which scenario wins you the fewest “I dunnos” and the most tales of frenemy antics and floor-hockey politics? The walking scenario, I guarantee. On foot, after all, your kids can’t escape into a book or a round of Angry Birds (at least not if you win the argument, as I usually do, over whether walking is compatible with cellphone games and paperbacks about fairies).
5. Walking is, in its own humble way, a form of travel.
We all know that vacationing with someone can benefit your relationship—assuming that you can agree on where to go and what to splurge on, and don’t almost come to blows when one of you insists on stinking up your motel room with nail polish remover. (No, Mom, I’m in no way referring to that time in Boston.) An ordinary walk requires few, if any, negotiations and no money. It’s just two people enjoying many perks of a shared vacation—interesting sights and sounds, the building of joint memories—who are then free to sleep in their own, nonstinky bedrooms.
6. Walks benefit relationships by providing conversation fodder.
Whether you’re with a new friend or your spouse of 20 years (maybe especially your spouse of 20 years), you’re bound to hit awkward silences now and then. This is where that guy shuffling toward you—the one who you both agree looks exactly like John Boehner crossed with the Pillsbury Doughboy—comes in handy.
7. Walking helps you blow off steam together.
Every few months, Bill and I take what we delicately call a “b*#!$*%’s walk” (rhymes with “dastard’s walk”). As you might guess, this is not an occasion to say nice things about a charming colleague, boss or contractor who’s been acting lovely. As you might also guess, it’s pretty darn cathartic. This walk is benefits both our spirits at that moment and, I’m convinced, for our relationship, because it cuts down on the need to sulk at home.
8. Walking gives your kids a chance to gripe to each other about how mean you are.
Face it: They need to do this—but you probably don’t want to overhear them. So the other day after a family disagreement, when my son and daughter casually announced that they would be taking a short walk together, I said sure, great, fine, watch out for cars.
And there you have it, scientists—my case for how walking benefits relationships. Just remember: When you win a Nobel for proving my theories (which I’m sure you’re now dying to do), I want a cut.
This article was published in August 2014 and has been updated. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock