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Reclaiming the Lost Art of the Stroll

Not long before the pandemic hit, someone reported me to the police. I wasn’t selling drugs or stealing a car or making too much noise in the middle of the night. I wasn’t even breaking the law. My only crime was to stroll through an American neighborhood where walking is not the done thing.

“People here drive everywhere,” the policeman told me. “Walking sets off alarm bells.”

A joke, right? Wrong. In a world in thrall to cars, walking is often seen as deviant behavior.

I grew up in a Canadian city where people would drive rather than walk 10 minutes. My earliest memory of walking to high school was hearing some guy hanging out the passenger side of his friend’s ride, hollering at me, “Get a car, loser!”

In many cultures, landing your first set of wheels is a rite of passage, a passport to adulthood. Driving can certainly boost your dating odds. Remember that famous line from Grease: “Tell me more, tell me more, like does he have a car?”

Small wonder the World Health Organization described walking as a “forgotten art.”

To make matters worse, when we do walk, it’s often with a very modern blend of impatience, distraction, and goal-hunting. We use apps to count our steps. We curse anyone daring to dawdle in our path. We spend much of the time staring down at our smartphones. All over the world, distracted pedestrians get hurt walking into lamp-posts, fire hydrants, or other distracted pedestrians.

Brick Lane, a hipster haven in London, came up with a novel way to curb walk-and-text injuries: wrap local lampposts in foam padding.

The truth is, we need to walk more–for our health and for the sake of the planet. But we also need to walk better.

The French have a wonderful word: flânerie. It means strolling without any goal in mind beyond exploring, observing, and savoring. It’s the opposite of power walking.

When you channel your inner flâneur (or flâneuse), you notice flowers and trees, clouds in the sky and hills on the horizon, how the light dances on water or across the windows of a building. You hear birdsong and the laughter of strangers. You take pleasure in what others are wearing and doing. Walking like a flâneur is a balm for the mind and the spirit.

In the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, used his daily constitutional to silence the chatter in his head. “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it,” he once said.

Shakespeare was on the same page. In “The Tempest,” Prospero says, “A turn or two I’ll walk, to still my beating mind.”

Walking can even be part of a path to enlightenment. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen master, says that a mindful stroll can bring spiritual clarity and heal both the walker and the world.

Ambling also fires up the imagination. That’s why big thinkers, from Aristotle to Virginia Woolf, have hailed the creative power of a good walk. William Wordsworth composed much of his poetry while wandering lonely as a cloud through the English countryside.

“All truly great thoughts,” said Nietzsche, “are conceived while walking.”

Nikola Tesla agreed. The inventor of the induction motor had his eureka moment while perambulating in Budapest. “The idea came like a flash of lightning,” he later recalled. “In an instant, the truth was revealed.”

A silver lining of the pandemic is that walking is making a comeback. With normal life on pause, people everywhere have embraced it as a way to exercise, unwind, or just get out of the house. I now take a long stroll every day in my corner of London. My route winds along Victorian streets and through three parks.

And I walk it in full flâneur mode. No rush. No Fitbit. No music. No phone. Just meandering for the sheer joy of it.

The other day, as I sauntered past a pond in the park, a question popped into my head: Has the pandemic finally made flânerie permissible in that neighborhood where someone dialed 911 after seeing me on foot? I emailed a local to find out.

“You’d fit right in here now,” came the reply. “I’m looking out my window, and everybody’s out there strolling around like they have all the time in the world.”

Carl Honoré is a London-based writer, broadcaster, and TED speaker. His bestselling books on the benefits of slowing down and aging have been published in 35 languages.

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Fitness Mind & Body

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Getting sick is unquestionably dangerous for some. But what if these infections are actually agents of healing?

That seems to be what happened to a British man who was suffering from swollen lymph nodes and unexplained weight loss. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer most common in people between the ages of 20 and 40, and those over 55. Then the ailing 61-year-old started wheezing and having difficulty breathing. He tested positive for COVID-19. His case was so severe that he was admitted to the hospital.

The lymphatic system is the part of the immune system that helps fight infections with white blood cells. Think of white blood cells as soldiers, always alert and ready for a fight. They flow through the bloodstream to fight viruses, invasive bacteria, and anything else foreign that could threaten your health. White blood cells are made in bone marrow and stored in the blood and lymph tissues.

When you have cancer in your blood—including leukemia and lymphoma—it develops in the cells in your lymphatic system. Lymphoma is unchecked growth of abnormal white blood cells.

After eleven days in the hospital, the 61-year-old British man was well enough to go home. A follow-up scan for lymphoma uncovered something astonishing. Not only had he made a full recovery from SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia, but there had also been a widespread and unexpected reduction in the cancer in his lymph nodes.

Without any cancer treatment at all, the disease was almost gone. The medical scans tell a visual story: Before he got a bad case of COVID-19, the cancer-affected areas were lit up like a birthday cake. After the severe infection, many of those areas disappeared completely. Others were significantly reduced.

His doctors, who wrote up his case in an article published in January in the peer-reviewed journal Images in Haematology, argue that the severe COVID-19 infection may have had an “anti-tumor” effect.

“There have been many documented cases of people with cancer who have then gotten a viral or bacterial infection and their cancer goes away,” says Laura Orlando, who’s been teaching classes on environmental health for almost 20 years and was not involved in the study.

“The presumption is that the immune system gets revved up in a manner that addresses the cancer,” says Orlando, an adjunct professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health as well as the executive director of the Boston-based, Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems, a nonprofit that works at the intersection of human health and the environment.

Benefits of Viral Infections

At first glance, it would seem almost impossible for there to be any benefit in getting COVID-19. We’ve been bombarded with fear around catching COVID-19 for over a year. Especially terrifying to many is the idea of becoming a “long-hauler.” Long COVID is the term used for people who continue to feel sick for months after any measurable sign of the infection is gone. Long-haulers test negative but don’t feel well. Anthony Komaroff, M.D., editor of the Harvard Health Letter, estimates that tens of thousands of people are suffering from long COVID. A recent study in Nature confirms that COVID-19 long-haulers are at increased risk of death and other poor health outcomes (including lung problems, heart issues, gastrointestinal upset, anxiety, and fatigue) than people who never had COVID-19.

So how is it possible that having COVID-19 may have the unexpected benefit of waking up the immune system to fight back against cancer?

Evidence in the scientific literature shows that there can be myriad unexpected benefits to getting sick. For example, we’ve known since 1966 that women who’ve had mumps in childhood have much less risk of developing reproductive cancer later in life. In fact, at least eight studies have found that getting mumps is protective against ovarian cancer. One theory for why this is the case is that an acute inflammatory event, like mumps, leads to the body creating antibodies that can later recognize and clear cancer cells.

And consider this: According to a Japanese study published in 2015, measles and mumps infections in childhood reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Surveying over 100,000 men and women ages 40 to 79, researchers from Osaka University found that getting just measles or mumps were both associated with a decreased risk of death from heart disease. Interestingly, people who had both illnesses in childhood had the lowest risk.

“Homeopaths have long argued for childhood illnesses to be left alone because they have beneficial effects,” says Annette Fang, a mother of three who has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. Fang studied homeopathy for three years and uses remedies to help her children and husband (also a chemist) when they get sick. “In the end, these diseases—even the common cold—are detox reactions,” Fang says. “In homeopathy, we call a cold ‘the drain of the brain.’ It’s good for the brain and your whole system.”

Benefits of Fever

One common symptom of illnesses like mumps, measles, and SARS-CoV-2 is fever. Most people normally have a body temperature between 97 and 99 degrees, so anything higher than 100.4 is considered a fever. My youngest daughter maintains a chipper attitude even when she has a fever, even asking her dad to take her to the skate park one afternoon even though she was burning up. For most, a fever feels awful. A low-grade fever may not make you feel very sick, but a higher fever is often accompanied by whole-body aching and lethargy. When you or a loved one is burning with fever, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything beneficial about it. But it’s not just humans that spike fevers when they’re sick. Fish, reptiles, and other mammals, including rabbits and dogs, get fevers as well.

Studies of both animals and humans have found that fever has beneficial effects. In one 2019 study, a team of Chinese scientists found that fever helped make the immune system more effective. Fever appeared to boost two specific molecules: alpha-4 integrin and heat shock protein 90. These molecules help white blood cells get from blood vessels into the lymph nodes where they can team up with other immune cells to attack infections.

And scientists have found that when we reduce fevers, infections get worse. Children with sepsis are more likely to die if their temperatures are lower. According to Paul Offit, M.D., writing in The Daily Beast, reducing fever via anti-pyretic medication has also been found to prolong symptoms of influenza, the common cold, and chickenpox.

Beyond helping the individual who’s feeling sick, fever may also be nature’s way of protecting the herd. My daughter’s spunk notwithstanding, when most people have a fever, we don’t want to be around others. Because we feel so unwell, we want to be in bed, resting or sleeping. This self-imposed isolation, courtesy of the fever, not only helps us heal, it keeps us away from other people, which helps them avoid getting sick.

Benefits of Getting Worms

Over 50 years ago, a medical doctor with the British Royal Navy, uncovered something baffling. Peter John Preston reported that a dozen officers broke free of their seasonal allergies after acquiring human roundworm. The exposure to worms appeared to heal their hay fever. Another scientist, John Turton, intentionally gave himself hookworms, which also seemed to cure his seasonal allergies.

William Parker, Ph.D., an immunologist at Duke University’s medical school, has been studying using worms—also called helminth therapy—to treat auto-immune disorders for over a decade. It’s a hard sell, Parker admits, but we humans and all other mammals have actually co-evolved to live with worms. We don’t usually think of the human body as an ecosystem, but that’s precisely what we are. We have beneficial microbes that live on us and inside us, microscopic mites that live on our faces, feeding off the oils secreted by our hair follicles, and fungi of all kinds that live on our skin and in our ear canals. All these critters make up the zoo in you, what researchers call the microbiome. We know that beneficial bacteria plays a key role in human health, and it turns out other “parasites” do too.

Parker says that dozens of scientific studies have shown that symbiotic worms can alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and several other autoimmune, allergic, and digestive conditions. His own research has also shown that helminths may help with anxiety, migraines, and neuropsychiatric disorders.

“One of the things that’s very tricky about this research is that there’s no standard dosing for worms,” Parker tells me. “Take the rat tapeworm, for instance. Some people need five every six weeks, others need 250 every three days. It depends on the person, and there’s a lot of variability.”

This research, as you can imagine, remains controversial. Dosage matters, as does how the worms are cultivated, which Parker argues are the main reasons why some scientific studies have failed to show beneficial effects.

Having too many worms in your system can make you sick. The illness often manifests as gastrointestinal upset, though this varies based on the worm, Parker says, and it’s easily treatable with anti-helminth medication. But when you co-habitate with helminths “in the right balance,” Parker says, the benefits significantly outweigh the harms. “We’ve seen that people can resolve autoimmune and other chronic problems,” he says.

If It Doesn’t Kill You…

This brings us back to COVID-19. One of the questions we haven’t been asking is why some people get so sick from COVID-19 (or any other viral illness) but others remain asymptomatic or have mild symptoms that quickly resolve. We want our immune systems to be awake, and our bodies to fight off what’s harmful, but we don’t want our immune system to overreact and harm us, as happens during a cytokine storm. We also don’t want to attack our own cells and tissues—an over-active immune system with nothing to fight against creates autoimmune diseases.

It’s not this virus in particular, or illness in general, that we need to fear. The problem comes when we have a severe reaction to the virus. “How resilient you are in the face of challenges is what matters most,” says Martha Herbert, Ph.D., M.D.

Herbert, 69, retired recently from Harvard Medical School, where she was on the faculty of the Department of Neurology for 20 years. “Our bodies are capable of handling a whole range of challenges, and we have the power to upgrade how well we handle them, but people aren’t taught that,” she says.

In other words, the problem is not getting sick. The real concern is suffering long-lasting health problems or dying from infection.

“Being sick is usually showing you something isn’t tuned properly, either in your lifestyle or in your environment,” Herbert says. She argues that illness can be a transformative experience, one that helps you get out of your ruts. “It should alert you to go into Sherlock Holmes mode of what you should improve, not in a scared or fanatical way, but in an informed way.”

So what information do you need for your body to be resilient to infections, toxic exposures, and catastrophic diseases like cancer? Herbert says we build resilience by eating nutrient-dense food, reducing our stress levels, exercising, and taking better care of ourselves. Regenerating soil that’s been depleted of nutrients because of industrial farming practices is important too. By eating well and avoiding toxic exposures (which includes stress), Herbert says, we help our bodies marshal the biological resources that allow us to heal.

Laura Orlando, 58, is a colleague of Herbert’s. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 52. It was terrifying news: Orlando’s mother died of colon cancer at 51 and her brother died of brain cancer at 52. By the time she got the diagnosis, the cancer had metastasized to her lymphatic system.

Orlando, who has a master’s in public administration from Harvard, teaches classes on wastewater and health, water quality, and international development. She grew up in farm country in Southwest Michigan, with two nuclear power plants nearby. As a child, she was also exposed to pesticides, herbicides, and many other toxins in the soil, food, air, and water. Her family also used to burn their garbage.

Though treating the cancer was an exhausting ordeal, Orlando found unexpected benefits to being sick. “I wouldn’t say I was glad I had cancer,” she says. “But my cancer is a reflection of the world I live in that’s awash with poisons that affect different bodies in different ways. So it brought my work into my life in a deeply personal and intimate way.”

One positive aspect to having cancer for Orlando was finding a community to rally to her aid. Two or three friends, some who had never met each other before, came with her to every treatment. The conversations they had were so intense and interesting that she would be sorry when she dozed off. As strange as it sounds, she tells me, though one of the hardest periods of her life, she and her partner think back fondly on those chemo days.

“My experience was not one of trauma or loneliness,” Orlando says. “There was misery in there for me, of course, but it was trumped by community.”

As someone who teaches systems thinking, Orlando had a different way of thinking about her cancer. She was not battling the cancer, but rather trying to keep it from overwhelming her body. “I’m in relationship with my cancer. I don’t want to die of cancer. But I would never say I’m fighting it. I would say: How do I live with this particular disease?”

Orlando says this is the question we have to ask, also, about COVID-19. Not how do we fight against and conquer it, but how do we cohabitate with it. “There are huge numbers of viruses in the soil and the seawater. They are not these boogeymen they’re made out to be. In recent years, we’ve come to know the human microbiome. We are multitudes. … My body is in relationship to the world around me, to the viruses, the bacteria, the pollen in the air, the food I eat, the chemicals around me. Our bodies are amazing.”

If we see viruses, bacteria, or even cancers as “killers,” then we’re operating from a place of fear. But fear shuts down our thinking around how to live in relationship with every aspect of our environment. Instead of trying to eradicate it, Orlando says we should figure out what we need to do to limit the possibility that a given disease is going to make us really sick. Since it’s likely SARS-CoV-2 will be cohabitating with us for some time, we have to ask: How do I live with this?

“This virus is a teacher,” Orlando says. “Let’s take it on.”

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a science journalist based in Oregon. She’s appeared live on prime-time TV in France and worked on a child survival campaign in Niger, West Africa. A Fulbright grantee and sought-after speaker, she authored “Your Baby, Your Way,” and co-authored “The Vaccine-Friendly Plan.” Learn more at www.JenniferMargulis.net