I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Walking As Escape And Exercise (1)

Camino, Spain

I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. GEORGE TREVELYAN

I've never been one for sitting around too long. I like to be up and about. As someone once said: We sit at breakfast, we sit on the train on the way to work, we sit at work, we sit at lunch, we sit all afternoon, a hodgepodge of sagging livers, sinking gall bladders, drooping stomachs, compressed intestines, and squashed pelvic organs. And as someone else said: If it weren't for the fact that the TV set and the refrigerator are so far apart, some of us wouldn't get any exercise at all.

Of course I'm sedentary much of the time like many of us. I sit at the computer, I sit at the dining table, I sit and read a book, I sit and watch TV. It's just that I can't sit down for long without getting terrible itchy feet. In fact I don't think we're meant to live overly sedentary lives. I know for a lot of us this is unavoidable at our place of work. That's why it's so important to try and balance things out by using our own two feet as much as we can during our leisure time.

The one thing I can't endure now is sitting for hours and hours in the car. This dates from a time when I used to drive 40,000 miles a year criss-crossing England as a freelance publishers' agent. I just couldn't go back to driving hundreds of miles each day. I have a phobia about it. (Sometimes, when I had a few free hours, I would turn off the motorway and take a walk in the countryside - carrying an umbrella, and dressed in a suit and smart shoes! I must have looked a trifle odd to other walkers passing by in cagoules, waterproof trousers and leather boots. But for me it was a necessary escape valve.)

The other sedentary activity I find difficult is sitting at dinner parties and social gatherings, or in circles of acquaintances or colleagues, and having to make polite conversation for hours on end. I'm not anti-social - but I'm not particularly effusively sociable either. When the boredom sets in and the gossip becomes too much to bear, my feet start tapping and my gaze turns to the world outside beckoning from beyond the window. How I would so love to be running in freedom out there! 

Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have identified with this. In a passage from the Eighth Walk in The Reveries Of The Solitary Walker Rousseau reminds us that, in order to appreciate a walk in nature with all its charms, you must leave behind the disturbance of the vain ideas of the drawing room, the fumes of self-love and the tumult of the world, and social passions and their sad retinue:

I remember perfectly that during my brief moment of prosperity these same solitary walks which are so delightful for me today were insipid and boring. When I was at someone's house in the country, the need to get some exercise and to breathe fresh air often made me go out alone; and sneaking away like a thief, I would go walk about the park or the countryside. But far from finding the happy calm I savor there today, I took along the disturbance of the vain ideas which had preoccupied me in the drawing room. Memory of the company I had left followed me into solitude. The fumes of self-love and the tumult of the world made the freshness of the groves seem dull and troubled the peace of the retreat. I fled deep into the woods in vain; an importunate crowd followed me everywhere and veiled all of nature to me. It is only after having detached myself from social passions and their sad retinue that I have again found nature with all its charms.

As well as being an escape from stress, boredom and social passions and their sad retinue, walking is also excellent for our health and well-being. It reduces the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. It keeps joints fluid, and bones and muscles strong. It's also a strong antidote to depression and other mental health problems. And it's actually pleasurable too! These are wonderful benefits from such an easy, innocuous, free and democratic activity. 

Walking is the best possible exercise. THOMAS JEFFERSON

It is remarkable how one's wits are sharpened by physical exercise. PLINY THE YOUNGER

A vigorous five mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world. PAUL DUDLEY WHITE

12 comments:

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

When I had finished walking the Camino I felt perhaps the healthiest I have ever felt. I think our bodies are 'made' for walking- and we do them great injury with our modern sedentary lifestyle.

George said...

To follow up on Kiwi Nomad's point, I have never felt better than I did on June 20 of this year, when I finished my coast-to-coast walk across England. It was more than just a psychological high; my body was functioning better than it had for many years. I have always tried to remain fit, going to the gym on a regular basis four to five times per week. Nothing matches walking, however, for the physical development of the person each of us is designed to be. I recall that the late writer, physician, and runner, George Sheehan, once said that the first obligation of a person if to be a good animal. So much depends on that.

While the physical benefits of walking are undeniable, the psychological benefits may be even greater, at least for me. Whenever I embark upon a walk, whether a long-distance walk or simply a walk around the neighborhood, I know that I will be recovering at least some of the sanity that is seemingly lost in the daily tumult of the world.

A great opening post for this series, Robert. I loved the quotes, and I look forward to the subsequent postings.

The Weaver of Grass said...

My physio says walking is the best possible exercise and as I believe anything she says I go along with that - and it is good for the brain.

Phoenix C. said...

It's rather fun to walk in a business suit and smart shoes - even with 3 inch heels! The benefits of the refreshment of the countryside are worth it, and the amusement of seeing the sidelong glances at one's mud encrusted heels later!

One of the most valuable lessons I have ever learned is to have trained myself to cast off all the 'vain ideas of the drawing room' in an instant and immerse myself in the atmosphere of the woods or wherever. And even a glimpse of trees out of a window is enough to trigger that kind of 'altered state of consciousness' that lifts the spirits in the middle of a business meeting. (That and the buffet!) But best of all is the 'proper walk'.

Loren said...

I can't imagine a life without long walks.

The worst years of my teaching career were those where I got so caught up in grading papers that I didn't manage to get in my daily walk.

It didn't take long to realize that I got much more done when I got away from papers long enough to get some walking in.

Rachel Fox said...

So true about the escape valve! One of the many reasons I struggle with driving is that motorways (especially queues on motorways) make me want to abandon the car on the hard shoulder and run away as far as I can into the fields or whatever. This isn't considerate for other drivers though - I am aware of that.

x

gleaner said...

Its hard to imagine what it would be like not to be able to walk on grass and paths on the earth - its a real gift and knowing that there are some who cannot walk due to disability just makes me appreciate it more.

I really enjoyed this post -

Arija said...

I absolutely agree with you. I am not and never have been a social butterfly. I wilt on pavement and in any gathering over 8 people but let me loose in nature and i thrive like the lilies in the field. I can at best manage 2-3 miles now in one go but I do enjoy my rambles in the wild or down a dusty track.

Bonnie said...

Our bodies not only need movement, but crave it. I've noticed that people who are more introspective - perhaps less extroverted than others - enjoy a solitary walk.

Occasionally I walk with a companion and so appreciate it if after a bit of polite chatter, they know how to be quiet and commune with path and sky.

Wonderful debut for your series Robert. I look forward to your next submission.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, everyone. It seems we all agree that walking is brilliant for body and brain, mind and soul.

Phoenix! I have this image now of a smart business woman in Tina Turner heels tottering down the Tyne valley ... Never tried it in heels, myself. I think I'll give that one a miss.

Rachel - that story - fleeing from the car on the motorway. Don't. Just don't. Stick to the 'C' roads. Please!

Ruth said...

I was gone for a couple of days, so I missed these last couple of posts, but I want to catch up, because they are soul-filling. I really like what Rousseau said, and I want to contemplate it some more. The point of getting away into the meadow or the woods is to find the nurturance of solitude, and his reflection gets at that so well.

Frank (Caraisla) said...

Thank you for publishing this really interesting post. When i finished The West Highland Way last year i was definitely at my fittest. Both physically and mentally.

The most important thing that i get out my walks is the escapism from everyday life. Ridding the body of the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I feel a lot happier within when i am out an about in the countryside.