Feeling lonely? Help is a walk away

The People Walker founder Chuck McCarthy chatting with his client Anie Dee as they walk in the Hollywood Hills. His walking service provides fresh air, exercise and companionship for $40 an hour.
The People Walker founder Chuck McCarthy chatting with his client Anie Dee as they walk in the Hollywood Hills. His walking service provides fresh air, exercise and companionship for $40 an hour.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • Step this way. Mr Chuck McCarthy starts off saying his walking service, at US$30 (S$40) an hour, provides fresh air, exercise and companionship - but peeing on trees is strictly no-no.

The Los Angeles-based entrepreneur works with humans, not animals.

"I was thinking about becoming a dog walker. But I've never had a dog in the city," he said on a recent saunter in the Hollywood Hills.

"I was also seeing a lot of personal trainer ads. And so I kind of said to my girlfriend, 'Maybe I'll just become a people walker.'"

He was joking, but the more he thought about it, the more he realised there was a need for the kind of comradeship he could provide.

The People Walker started as a one-man operation two years ago.

But demand was so high, he now has a roster of 35 walkers and a website where people can choose routes and walking partners.

Social disconnection has been linked in various studies to depression, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It can shorten life as profoundly as regular smoking, according to some estimates.

New York University professor of sociology Eric Klinenberg identified a major cause of loneliness in a recent column in The New York Times - a growing global culture of individualism.

It is not that people have fewer friends, said experts, but rather that the "gig economy" has produced a generation of freelancers with none of the routines or social bonds that traditionally connected workers.

"I've walked people who're married with kids who have (many) friends. It's about convenience, it's about location and having things your way," Mr McCarthy said.

Instead of "screaming into the void of Twitter or Facebook", his clients get to enjoy human connections with folk who do not know them and will not judge or gossip.

Mr McCarthy is an aspiring actor, which makes him coy about revealing his age - "I guess I'm in my 30s" - but auditions have taken a backseat to the business recently.

"I still wouldn't turn down a starring role opposite George Clooney," he added, just for the record.

The business is on the cusp of making the kind of money he could call a living, with an app about to launch and grand plans for expansion across California, the United States and, eventually, the world.

He has no idea how far his feet have taken him in the last two years, but he walks clients four or five times a week, typically for an hour, and describes himself as more of a listener than a talker.

"It's less of a confession and more of a conversation. So I wouldn't say that I'm getting the deepest, darkest secrets and nobody is breaking down crying on our walks," he said.

His clients come in all shapes and sizes and walk for a variety of reasons. Ms Anie Dee, a Wisconsinite in her late 20s who decamped to Los Angeles seven years ago, had been driving for a ride-share service, sitting all day, and decided last year to get out more.

"I have some health issues, so walking long distances is very difficult. And so having somebody with me, we walk a lot farther than I ever thought I could," she said.

She noticed that as she began going out with Mr McCarthy, her mood and outlook became noticeably more positive.

"When you're working a lot of desk jobs and you're by yourself, you don't really have that social aspect," she said. "So when you go for a long walk, it's like, 'I feel refreshed - this is really nice.'"

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2018, with the headline 'Feeling lonely? Help is a walk away'. Print Edition | Subscribe