Walking Your Way to Health

by frankbeswick

There is much research that shows that walking is beneficial to body and mind.

Scientists from across the globe have been discovering the benefits of walking for physical and mental well being. Whether it is a gentle stroll in the park or a brisk walk in the country or across mountain or moorland, or even a walk to work through the town, the activity seems to benefit those who participate in it. Walking can be as good as running in some cases, and it is certainly less grueling than a long run. So let us look at it in more detail.

Picture courtesy of ghwtog

The Lifestyle

For some people a walk of a few miles is a daunting task, and some regard walkers as a strange breed, hovering somewhere between insanity and heroism.I can recall a time when a thirteen year old  pupil asked me, "Sir, are you getting the bus home?" I said that I was not, as I was going to walk two miles and then pick  up a bus [I had an appointment that night.] He was astounded, so I said "Two miles is nothing, I often walk the three and a half to school in the morning." His eyes widened in amazement, and as I walked off I heard him say of me, " He must be well hard!"

Yet while walking can be seen by some people as strange, it is an activity richly rewarding. The variety is enriching, for the same place can be experienced in a range of moods. I have experienced the south of the Carnaeddau mountain range in a glorious summer when the sky was blue and the sun beamed down on the panorama visible from the summit of Pen yr Ole Wen, but I have met the same range in February when the snows swirled thickly across the mountains under a grey sky. Both experience were rewarding, but the latter was the more challenging. 

Even if the weather is inclement a walk can be a lovely experience. There was  one time when Maureen and I were visiting Bergen, in Norway, Europe's rainiest city. We ascended by cable car to half way up the mountain overlooking the town and walked to the summit. We should have known, but as we stood atop the peak, the first drops fell. And fell! We walked down the mountain in strangely good humour, considering that we were soaked, as the experience of the landscape was so enjoyable. I can remember feeling very happy as we hiked through the deluge.  In a similar vein,  one May I walked in gentle English rain through a woodland on the North Downs, the softly rolling chalk hills that amble across part of Southern England. As the rain fell steadily, I trod my way through a woodland rich in bluebells that proliferated under the interplay of light and shade as the sunlight filtered through the canopy. The beautiful experience was worth the wetting. 

There is a variety in walking as rich as the landscapes through which you roam. Not only is walking a health giving activity beneficial to the body as a whole, but it is an emotional and spiritual experience. The Greeks and Romans  had a proverb, solvitur ambulando [it is solved by walking] by which they meant that to think out a problem you need to walk while thinking. We note that monasteries have cloisters, long quiet corridors along which monks might stroll while meditating. The monks walk prayerfully. A good walk can calm the emotions and soothe the agitated spirit. Moreover, simply walking with a loved one is a shared experience that can be undertaken without much need for verbal communication, simply both sharing the activity, harmonizing your pace with each other and silently enjoying the beauty of the scenery or the culture of the area through which you walk. 

Walking and Physical Health

People probably knew intuitively that walking was good for them for many millenia, and their insights have been steadily put on a scientific footing.  In the USA the National Walkers Health Survey, which studied 15045 walkers confirmed this insight. As expected the walkers had cardiovascular health superior to non-walkers [excluding runners.] Their blood pressure and cholesterol levels were healthier than the non-exercising group, and there were possible gains in the diminished likelihood of coronary disease. Walkers had lower Body Mass Indices and  thinner waists than joggers, though serious runners are a different matter. Put simply, gentle sustained exercise of the type that is happening when we walk is beneficial. The Times, 24 Sept 2016, quotes Sanjay Sharma, a professor of medicine at St George's University Foundation Trust, who  states that research shows that moderately paced walking reduces the risk of heart attack by fifty per cent in people in their fifties and sixties.  Quite simply, walking is very good exercise for older people, but also for young people as well. 

The Harvard Nurses Health  Study also found that walking regularly reduced the incidence of type 2 diabetes by thirty percent. This may be because this disease is associated with obesity and walkers are not as likely to be as fat as non-walkers are,but a walk after eating has been found to balance blood sugar levels for twenty four hours, and as diabetes is due to unhealthy blood sugar levels balancing must be beneficial. 

Yet there are other benefits. Polly Vernon, writing in the Times 24th September 2016 reports that within two weeks of building daily walking into her lifestyle her muscle tone had improved, her shape was better as her muscles strengthened and she was maintaining a good weight. An average sized person uses 88 calories per mile when walking, so three miles is over 250 calories gone.I wear a pedometer every day to check how many steps I have done,how many calories spent and what mileage I have trodden. Today I have done 6.49 kilometres, which is about four and a half miles.  

But it is not just the muscles that benefit . The University of Boston discovered that sufferers from knee arthritis can reduce their pain by taking up walking six thousand steps a day. But the act of walking stresses the bones in a positive way, making them react to stress by improving bone mass, and that is quite important in older people, in whom bone mass can decline through the ageing process. In fact,maintaining healthy exercise resists the ageing process and can, it is sometimes said, add seven years to our lives. 

Walking and the Mind

Various researchers have discovered that walking protects our brains. There have been studies at the University of Miami into the effects of walking, which show that those who do not walk experience cognitive decline in ageing quicker than walkers do, and they have shown that walking six miles a week protects brain size and enhances memory. This enhancement of cognitive capacity seems greatest in regions associated with planning and memory.

Studies at the University of  Toulouse have shown that walking outdoors improves mood and helps alleviate mild depression. I think that this may be due to the fact that walking is an inherently stress-free activity, so  when we do it we are replacing stressful activities with a stress-free one, and that cannot be bad for us.  

There is a link between walking and thinking. Stephen Zwolinsky of Leeds Beckett university says that human are designed to solve problems while walking for fourteen hours a day. I know that when I was a theological student in the North West of Ireland I used to slip out of college at night [against the rules, but no one looked for me] and walk the roads, often in the dark,pondering questions in the philosophy of religion. I got more from that than I did from some lectures. We can walk alert to nature, picking up its sights and sounds, listening to the music of wind and water and catching the play of the light and the ever-changing cloudscapes above us. When walking, be it in town or country, we can gently stimulate our minds in a low-stress way, though pondering along dark lanes at night might not be the lowest stressed from of walking. 

The precise amount of walking that we need to do daily is not clear.Several years ago scientists plucked a figure from the air of ten thousand steps a day, but there was never any scientific basis for this, and more recent figures have been around twelve thousand steps daily. But I believe that any regular walking is good for you. I rarely do ten thousand steps a day, but seven thousand is not unusual for me. I am at 7923 today and it is only five o'clock  in the afternoon, so there is more time to walk.

I have always loved walking, ever since my parents, who could not afford a car, used to take me and my brother by bus to Werneth Low, a small peak in the foothills of the Pennines, the range that divides North West from North East England. Happy days when I was under five years old and the sun shone. I have not done a twenty mile walk for some time, as commitments to family and the allotment are quite demanding, but I have done plenty of shorter walks. There is a yearning on me for a good long one, so where next and when, as the Autumn is drawing in and the weather in our stormy isle is not so good? 

Updated: 09/27/2016, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 12/19/2023

We have walked in snow. We would not go out in really bad weather.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/19/2023

The third paragraph to the first subheading, The lifestyle, concerns your and your wife's walking in the sun and then in the rain.

Has there ever been a Beswick couple walk in the snow?

(How high would the temperature have to rise, how low would it have to fall for you and your wife and your family not to honor amiable walks?)

frankbeswick on 12/19/2023

There is no normal tendency. It is purely individual.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/18/2023

Some people like to underdress when they walk even as others like to overdress.

The former maintains the minimalist, shortest shorts and tops even as the latter manages to cover up as much as possible from neck down through feet.

What would be the tendency among eastern-ponders?

frankbeswick on 03/11/2023

Light boots. But I cannot speak for Veronica.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/11/2023

The third paragraph under your first subheading, The Lifestyle, describes you and your wife hiking.

May I ask what footwear Maureen and little sister Veronica select for hiking or just walking around the block?

Grandma Blue Eyes, my English grandmother Rose, opted for sensible shoes and Wellington-like boots. She selected laced boots or oxfords for hikes and laced oxford-like shoes with heels for daily life.

The latter only seem to show up in black-and-white films or in present-day films, such as Darkest Hour, set before mid-century.

frankbeswick on 10/27/2016

I now have a pedometer that counts my steps.

happynutritionist on 10/27/2016

This is my favorite exercise, we have nice wooded streets to walk, and if it is raining I have an indoor walking program I do. I could be doing it more lately, thanks for the reminder.

frankbeswick on 10/02/2016

Sometimes cities can be good walking experiences, but I prefer the countryside. I did quite a lot of mountain walking when I was younger, but I tend to prefer coastal walks these days, though I don't get enough time for them. Of course, no British person is more than a hundred miles from the sea, and my home is a mere thirty.

Your mention of cloisters made me think, for monks sometimes walk in the cloisters and at other times sit and read. This made me think about the relationship between walking and sitting. At times on a walk we can stop and think. There are times when you must stop walking for a while and stop to experience the landscape. Whether sitting or walking we need to sensitize ourselves to the landscape, taking in the blend of culture and nature with which most walks present us.

Mira on 10/02/2016

This was inspiring to me, too, especially your comment about cloisters, since I find that walking in the city can be a burden sometimes: too much clamor, and hustle and bustle; sometimes I can't even someone on the phone as I walk.

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