The Road Not Taken
by Alexander Green
In the first half of our nation’s history, most Americans earned a living in tough, physical jobs like farming, mining, animal husbandry, forestry or construction.
But today, we live in a white-collar world. Most of us do little physical labor. If we don’t make a concerted effort to exercise, we get none.
Yet according to Dr. Barry Franklin, head of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, “Starting at the age of 20, we lose about 1% of our aerobic fitness each year. A walking program can improve that fitness from 10 to 20% in three months. That’s the same as 10 to 20 years of rejuvenation.”
Medical research shows that regular exercise helps fight off colds and flu, reduces the risk of chronic diseases and slows the aging process.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a brisk 30- to 45-minute walk five times a week…
- Lowers the risk of stroke by 27%.
- Reduces the incidence of high-blood pressure by 40%.
- Can reduce mortality and the risk of breast cancer by approximately 50%.
- Lowers the risk of colon cancer by over 60%.
- Reduces the incidence of diabetes by approximately 50%.
- Reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 40%.
- Can decrease depression as effectively as Prozac or behavioral therapy.
Inactivity poses as great a health risk as smoking – and contributes to heart disease, hypertension, arthritis and osteoporosis. Even lean men and women who are inactive are at higher risk of death and disease.
Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 36% of U.S. adults didn’t engage in any leisure-time physical activity in 2008.
That’s unfortunate, especially since – no matter where you live – all you need are non-threatening skies and a pair of comfortable shoes.
The benefits aren’t just physical. Walking has always had a close association with poets, philosophers, and spiritual leaders:
- Ancient Japanese and Chinese philosophers meandered around lakes and mountains, preserving their thoughts in gemlike poetry.
- Jesus of Nazareth was an itinerant preacher who walked forty days and nights through the Wilderness of Judea.
- The lyrical ballads of the English romantic poets were composed on long strolls through the countryside.
- Thomas Jefferson wrote to his favorite nephew Peter Carr: “You must take at least two hours a day to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning… Walking is very important. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk, but divert yourself by the objects surrounding you.”
- William Wordsworth is estimated to have walked 170,000 miles in his life and sparked a cottage industry of walking tours in England and Europe.
- Leaders of the American Enlightenment – Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson – recommended long daily tramps. Thoreau wrote that he had “a genius, so to speak, for sauntering.”
- In a letter to his niece Jette, existentialist Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Do not lose your desire to walk; every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
- Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on daily walks between his home and his office in downtown Hartford. In his poem, “Of the Surface of Things,” he wrote, “In my room, the world is beyond my understanding. But when I walk, I see that it consists of three or four hills and a cloud.”
Walking is elemental, as basic a human activity as eating, breathing, and sleeping.
It distinguishes us from the other primates, indeed from every other species on earth. 80,000 years ago, our great ancestors walked out of Africa and colonized the world.
For most of our history, walking wasn’t a choice. It was a given. Walking was our primary means of locomotion.
But today, you have to choose to walk. We ride to work. Office buildings and apartments have elevators. Department stores offer escalators. Airports use moving sidewalks. An afternoon of golf is spent riding in a cart. Even a ramble around your neighborhood can be done on a Segway.
It’s better to just put one foot in front of the other. You don’t have to live in the country. It’s great to take a walk in the woods. But I love to roam city streets too, especially in places like New York, London or Rome where it’s hard to go half a block without making some new discovery.
A long stroll slows you down, puts things in perspective, brings you back to the present moment.
In Wanderlust, author Rebecca Solnit writes that, “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.”
Yet in our hectic, goal-oriented culture, taking a leisurely walk isn’t always easy. You have to plan for it.
And you should. Walking is good exercise, but it’s also a recreation, an aesthetic experience, an exploration, an investigation, a ritual, a meditation. It fosters health and adds to a general feeling of wellbeing.
Cardiologist Paul Dudley White once said, “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.”
In short, a good walk is anything but pedestrian. It lengthens your life. It clears, refreshes, provokes, and repairs the mind.
So lace up those shoes and get outside. The most ancient exercise is still the best.