“Walking . . . is how the body measures itself against the earth.”- Rebecca Solnit
Walking is the most fundamental movement of the human animal. We begin to do it with a lot of fanfare and excitement during our first year of life. As parents, we eagerly look forward to the day that our child takes their first step unassisted. We celebrate that day, recorded on video, and in some cases spend the next 18 years driving them everyplace so that they don’t have to walk. Our ancestors walked everywhere, and if you are a Baby Boomer then I am sure that you have told the story of walking 3 miles to school daily, uphill both ways. What happened to the human animals propensity for walking, and what has been the cost of this change in the way that we view human locomotion?
The verb walking comes from the Old English word wealcan meaning “to roll.” Walking is distinguished from running and other methods of ambulation because only one foot at a time breaks contact with the ground and there is a brief period when both feet are supporting the body weight while in motion. It is the safest and most natural form of exercise that a human can do. It can be done anywhere, can be performed solo or in groups, can be exercise, transportation, meditation, or even a conversation starter. It can increase energy, control weight, reduce stress, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, prevent some cancers, and fights osteoporosis. Humans are able to do this activity from approximately a year old to well into old age. Studies have shown that walking a half an hour approximately 5 times per week yields comparable antidepressant properties as psychotropic medications. Despite all of these physical and mental health benefits, many people find this activity inconvenient, boring, and a nuisance. What’s wrong with us?
Evolutionary biologists believe that these benefits exists because the human animal is hardwired to walk. Walking is something that humans must do, they argue, in order to be fully healthy and human. Primitive man was kept alive and survived due to two critical factors, his ability to think and reason in ways that other animals cannot, and his ability to walk. It is widely believed that human beings first developed 1.8 million years ago in East Africa. Based on footprints found in Kenya, it is presumed that man was walking in our current upright style 1.5 million years ago, and from that point onward man began to navigate the globe. Man’s intellectual capacity allowed him to figure out the best places to migrate to for food, safety, and survival needs. For a while, the human animal was a nomad, traveling in vast communities, seeking out the best locations for food, clothing, and shelter. Eventually, humans learned how to plant seeds and farm, domesticate animals, and create consistent and predictable sources of food, allowing for the development of communal living.
Even with consistent sources of food and the development of communities, walking remained a part of man’s every day activity. Even into the early modern period, walking was a part of everyone’s daily existence. Public transportation, as we currently know it, did not exist in developed nations until approximately the 1880’s. The automobile did not become commonplace in American life until the middle of the 20th century. The human animal has abandoned walking for only a brief period of our total existence. Perhaps the rise of overweight, out of shape, unhealthy, stressed out, and lethargic people correlates to the demise of this basic and necessary human activity called walking. It’s quite possible that these health related problems are our body’s way of reminding us that movement is in our DNA. We have to move and walk to be a fully functioning human being.
The very act of walking has gone from a given activity to an exception. Go to any commercial gym in the country and you will see people waiting in line in order to get on a machine on which they walk to nowhere, indoors, staring at a television. If you are a parent, you may find yourself driving your children to and from places that are less than a mile from your home. You probably drive your car periods of a half a mile or less for routine activities. What’s the message that we are giving our children with these behaviors? What’s the toll on our bodies and health for this “convenience?” How many convenient opportunities are missed each day for a simple, yet highly effective, form of exercise that costs us nothing?
Part of the bad rap that walking has received is due to its being taken for granted as a method of exercise, stress reduction, and mode of travel. There are exercise trends that catch people’s attention and, at least for a while become the “best” way to obtain health and fitness. We had the running boom of the 1970s, (yeah, I’m still paying the price for that too), Jazzercise, Zumba, aerobics, and Crossfit. Walking, no pun intended, seems rather pedestrian in comparison. It is viewed as too boring, time consuming, and not intense enough to give us a good workout. On the surface, this would appear to be true. There are, however, three criteria that must be met for good exercise:
· Frequency-how often you perform the exercise
· Duration-the amount of time the exercise is performed
· Intensity-the amount of physiological stress the activity applies to the body.
Walking would appear to fall short of many other physical activities at first glance. Why walk for an hour when you may be able to get the same results from 20 minutes of running? After all, it’s less intense than running, requires more time, and needs to be done more often.
Like many things in life, things are often not what they first appear to be. If you are a runner or work out at a gym, then walking should play a major part in your fitness regimen. Factor in some of the extra tasks that are required for that quick jog through the neighborhood or workout at the gym that you squeeze in three times per week. If you are brutally honest with yourself and your time management you will find that they are a number of time consumers:
· warm-ups and stretching
· cool downs
· changes of clothing and shoes
· travel to and from
· aggravations (ever forget to pack your shoes for that work out at the gym before work?)
· down time required to rehab injuries from intense exercise
Walking, excels at two of the three criteria for a great exercise choice, frequency and duration. If you are looking to get super fit, it is by no means all that is required. If you are looking to stay in good shape indefinitely, then it is the wisest activity to add to your routine. If you are into extreme modes of fitness such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, or strength sports, walking adds to your aerobic capacity, aids recovery, and does not deplete that hard earned muscle and strength that you’ve worked to build. It’s often said that that man was “born to run,” but it is far more likely that man was “born to walk.”
No matter what your fitness goals, or even if you don’t have fitness goals, don’t overlook this simple and basic human activity. Twenty-four hundred years ago Hippocrates said “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Study after study and the experience of humans over 2 million years support his premise. Find ways to add walking to whatever exercise you are currently doing. If you aren’t currently exercising, or have an aversion to exercise, walk for other reasons-for transportation, meditation, as a way to have a good conversation with a friend, or to give your dog some exercise. If you are currently on a good fitness regimen, add walking for the mental health, fat burning, and recovery benefit that it will give you.
If you can walk, then you must.
“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.”- Steven Wright
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