How are the boys?” my mother asks down the phone. It’s 11.30pm on a Sunday and I’m walking down an empty road in the dark, not far from my home on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. “Yeah, they’re alright,” I reply. A long explication follows in which I recount the days of my five- and six-year-olds — the swimming lessons, the classmate’s birthday party, the meltdown over not being allowed to keep the disposable vape found abandoned at the skatepark. I don’t skimp on these scintillating details because my mother is bed-bound with cancer and is now forced to subsist on the lives of others for news and entertainment. Increasingly, her memory is deserting her, too. I’ve just finished telling her about Joe’s plan to dress as Willy Wonka for Book Week when she interjects: “How are the boys?”
My mum’s condition is part of the reason I’m walking the streets at this idiotic hour. On my last visit to see her back in England, it was heart-wrenching to see this sparky woman confined to her bed, with her mobility limited to the point where she’ll only venture outside for hospital visits. Seeing her universe shrink to the boundaries of her cluttered bedroom left me gripped by a suffocating claustrophobia. When she fell asleep, I had to go for a walk.
Was that walk a form of escapism or some deeper kind of emotional avoidance? To be honest, I’ve no idea. Either way, the fresh air and illusion of forward momentum somehow helped. I paced the familiar streets of the Leicester village I’d grown up in and returned to the house feeling calmer and less inwardly apocalyptic. So, in the days that followed, I kept walking — and now I’m unable to stop.
To give this coping mechanism a veneer of self-congratulatory purpose, I decided that this year I would walk 10,000 steps every single day. Admittedly, in a world of ultramarathons and dawn bootcamps, this is a decidedly modest physical goal. The specific benefits are also rather dubious. While walking is indisputably good for you, a 2020 study found that the benefits plateau after 7,500 steps a day. Yet I’ve found the humdrum consistency of this mission to be a psychic godsend. Forget the body, it’s proved weirdly good for the soul.
Each morning, I now walk my kids to school — a distance that amounts to 20 minutes each way, 5,000-odd steps there and back. For the boys, it’s not so much a walk as an ongoing quest to see how many snails we can spot along the way (our record stands at 13). While scanning the road for molluscs, we shoot the breeze
and I field endless questions. Are there more ants or humans on the planet? Why can’t Marc have a “real gun”? “When Granny dies will she ‘sleep in the dirt or get roasted in the fire’?” My answers, in case you’re wondering, are: ants, no and cremated. That walk has become my favourite part of my day.
I rarely manage to clock up 10,000 steps in one hit, but whittle the tally down over my waking hours. It’s not an efficient form of activity — it takes at least 80 minutes to reach my daily target — yet all that time outside brings additional gains. Being out and about in the neighbourhood each day has quietly bolstered my community ties. Most days, I’ll wind up chatting to familiar passers-by, whether it’s Judy (the old lady with the one-eyed dog), Dale (the builder in the cowboy hat, who likes to talk cricket) or Daniel (the local eccentric who carves mad sculptures in his garden). Snail counting aside, walking the same streets and coastal paths each day has also sharpened my awareness of the changing seasons, while feeding a renewed awe for the magnificence of trees.
I’m sceptical about whether this 10,000-steps business has brought any tangible physical effects. I’ve possibly lost a kilo or two, while the daily practice of tracking steps on my iPhone has led me to start monitoring my alcoholic units — a sobering business on multiple levels. My objective has also nudged me back into semi-regular gym visits and even the occasional run, as, when I’m really flat-out, they’re just quicker ways to get the job done. The fact that I’m not a tour guide or traffic warden but a sedentary ink-slinger means that, in order to reach 10,000 steps, I’m forced to actively cultivate more opportunities to walk. My wife reckons I’ve become obsessive. When I’m, say, pacing the deck of the Spirit of Tasmania, or prowling the airport corridors when our flight is delayed, I can feel her rolling her eyes. “Why do you have to turn everything into a pointless challenge?” she asks.
I understand her misgivings. Walking 10,000 steps every day is a futile goal by most hard-headed parameters. Trudging along to hit this arbitrary number is a self-indulgent and time-consuming activity that’s probably too feeble to even count as meaningful exercise. Yet there’s an unexpected magic that hides in my daily plod. What this routine has accidentally done is to carve out time to process and think. Given the breakneck speed of modern life, with all its teeth-gnashing pressures, I’ve come to find some value in that. Walking every day makes me feel more calm and less gripped by that oppressive sense of impending doom.
And so I keep on walking, putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, week after week. Each night, once the kids are finally asleep and my wife and I have done Wordle together on the sofa, I wander the quiet streets in the dark and I call my mother. “How are the boys?” she asks in her breathless voice. “You know what?” I reply. “We’re all doing just fine.”