'Wonderful alchemy' -- In praise of walking (part 1)

In a day when anyone can change from jogging shoes, drive to the nearest airport, there to be whisked by jumbo jet in a few hours to almost any corner of the Earth, I want to sing the praises of walking.

With a caution first to watch out for traffic, I urge you to now and then cover a mile or two by legwork alone. Let us quietly celebrate here the charms of the nearest footpath, the smug satisfaction of owning a pair of well-scuffed hiking boots, the seductions of daily putting a leash on the dog and stepping out, the never-ending allure of the city’s gleaming sidewalks.

To begin, walking is probably the perfect all-around exercise. There is a wealth of evidence from the specialists to support his claim. Physical fitness experts extol walking as the ideal activity for keeping the body in shape. Walking can be an aerobic exercise. This means that a brisk walk increases both heart rate and overall oxygen consumption. A good stroll through the neighborhood also lowers high blood pressure, actively stimulates the digestive system, tones the leg muscles, and is an effective aid to sleep. There are also beneficial effects on posture, lower back alignment, and a reduction of serum cholesterol levels. Walking is excellent and cheap medicine.

A natural tranquilizer, walking also helps you cope with stress. It is a tension reliever. Anxiety drains away as your pace relaxes into a steady rhythm. The interaction of body with mind during a good walk simply untangles many of the day’s knots. A sense of well-being and accomplishment results from a steady schedule of footslogging. It is the glory and grace of this simple exercise of walking that it permits us to take leave for a while from the manipulations and judgments of our daily work and living. This can be a powerfully effective aid in fighting depression and in the maintenance of good emotional balance.

Walking is fairly easy. It is sensible. It is accessible. It requires no special equipment, no expensive outlay for paraphernalia. Walking is as natural to the human body as breathing. The body itself was built for use and functions much better when all its parts regularly have a chance to work in harmony together.

In addition to these impressive benefits to our physical and mental health, walking offers much more.

A kind of wonderful alchemy takes place during a long walk. Why does a person begin to pace back and forth when she is seeking a solution to a difficult problem or dilemma? When you are stuck, unable to go either forward or backward, just spinning wheels, take a stroll. A hike seems to heighten consciousness. You feel more creative, with an enlarged sense of possibilities. You don’t even have to mull over the problem deliberately. Just think about whatever comes to mind, enjoy the passing view, or worry about something else (no shortage of grist for that mill). Meanwhile the problem at hand sinks slowly out of sight into the murky depths of the unconscious where it will roll and churn about, finally bubbling and floating up to the top – along with maybe an unforeseen solution.

Hal Borland, a nature writer, suspects that it is possible to gauge a person’s mental breadth and depth by examining his or her attitude toward walking. Does he like to walk? Where does she go for walks? How often? Why? Or does that person, when you show up a bit footweary on her doorstep, look at you in absolute horror and exclaim, “You mean you walked??!!”

Taking a walk is a friendly way to take the true measure of things. A sense of proportion and of perspective seems to return. We are able to get our feet back on the ground. Truth often comes to meet us in new ways. And a daily walk is a regular lesson in old-fashioned virtues like patience, steadfast resolve, and the almost priceless ability to be contentedly unhurried. Walkers are perhaps less likely than others to mortgage the present for some far-off future.