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The Magic of Walking
To me, the act of walking is one of the greatest exercises in gentle living. There are few other activities which are so inexpensive and environmentally friendly as a good walk. Nor as useful in so many ways. Walking is exercise without the gym or expensive equipment, the natural way to weight control. Walking is transportation without harmful emissions. Walking is the tranquilizer without the drug, psychotherapy without the couch, the inexpensive vacation or relaxing retreat. Walking is moving meditation and a stimulant to mental activity. Walking is accessible to almost all age, social and economic groups. Walking is true magic, a transformer of body, mind and soul.
Walking is a symphony of body movement which has many cathartic effects on the mind and soul. To walk is the freest, most personal form of human activity. When we walk, we are our own person. We go where we please, as we please, at the pace we please, and with whom we please.
We can walk in at least four different styles: walking to move, walking to see, walking to think, and walking to socialize. Walking to move is transportation or exercise. Walking to see is the walk of naturalists, explorers, artists and tourists. Walking to think is the walk of poets and philosophers, mystics and dreamers. Social walking is walking to conduct business, teach, or protest injustice, and it is also the gentle walk of families, friends and lovers.
Many walkers are soloists, a temporary revolution unto themselves, who walk to experience, to think, to dream. Some of my best thoughts have come while walking. But I am not alone. Many have used walking as a stimulant to ideas including some of the greatest of human minds: Charles Dickens and Albert Einstein; Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson; Immanuel Kant and Aldous Huxley; Abraham Lincoln and Robert Louis Stevenson; Jane Austen and Henry David Thoreau; Jean Jacques Rousseau and Ralph Waldo Emerson; the English poets Samuel Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth.
Others have used the walk primarily to go from one place to another, as transportation to work, school or social activities. Then there are the wanderers and explorers, men and women who see the world on its terms, walking the streets and highways, the trails and the untrampled wilderness. In the past century, many have walked for freedom and human rights, and others have walked to raise awareness of diseases, social injustice and environmental destruction. Some walked with groups; some walked alone.
Aaron Sussman and Ruth Goode in their book The Magic of Walking proposed a "Beginner's Recipe for Walking":
I add one important additional ingredient as a starter:
To begin, give yourself permission to take time and go for a walk. Too often we do not take time for a walk because we have little voices in our head telling us that we should be doing something else instead of taking time for ourselves: make dinner; complete the report, make those phone calls; pay attention to the kids. Therefore, the first step in walking is to override those voices with your own giving you permission to take a walk for your physical and mental health. If necessary, write the permission out and attach it to your wall, mirror, refrigerator or computer. Make an appointment on your calendar with yourself to take that walk. Now, let's get out there.
Walk a modest distance or time at first. As you continue your walks daily, your limit will stretch as you build strength. Going too far too soon may ruin the pleasures of the activity. With comfortable shoes and clothing appropriate for the weather and terrain, anyone in ordinary health can walk at least twenty to thirty minutes. For most, that is equivalent to two kilometres or about one and a quarter miles. With a little training, an hour's walk can become commonplace, and you will soon look forward to weekend walks of two hours or more.
Find a comfortable pace. Each of use has our own unique stride and rhythm. Let your arms swing and body flow with the movement. Walking too slow, stop-and-start walking, and tense and hurried walking all rob the body of energy. A good, brisk walk with your particular stride will require less energy than an unnatural pace or a tense walk. Experiment with longer strides; you'll know when you find the right one. With the proper pace, you should breathe in a controlled, flowing manner. If you find yourself puffing or unable to talk while walking, slow down.
Now that you have established a comfortable pace, feel yourself, feel the motion, feel the synchronizing of moving, breathing and thinking. Then, forget yourself. Use the rhythm of movement to focus on seeing or thinking or just clearing your mind.
Truly committed walking is an acquired taste. For most of use, the mechanics are simple and natural, a process we can do as well as the next fellow. Having completed the novice level of walking, however, we can only advance to the next level if we enjoy doing it. To me this requires four things. First, we must decide why we are walking. Have at least one purpose for going out for your walks. Do not wander aimlessly. You may have a different purpose each time you go out. Focussing on a brief mission statement just before leaving helps. I am going for a walk for exercise. Or I am going out for a walk to reflect on that question. You may combine two purposes such as exercise and looking at the spring blossoms along the way. Purpose may also change during a walk. Do not be so rigid that you loose a golden opportunity to stop and smell the roses.
Second, we must make a time for walking on a regular basis. Schedule it in your daily calendar. Having a busy schedule may be the best reason for taking a walk, giving yourself time to clear your head and re-energize. If you cannot schedule long daily walks, take several short one rather than coffee or cigarette breaks and schedule longer ones for alternate days or weekends.
Third, find your favourite places to walk. In every place I have lived, I have found a special walk or two. One that takes me away from the overwhelming bustle of life and into a harmonious state of mind. My current trek covers the perimeter of a local golf course. It gets me away from the cacophony of urban life without having to resort to travel by automobile or bus. As soon as I leave the street and come down the first hill, traffic sounds recede and the birds dominate the audio landscape, their songs accented by the rustle of wind in the trees and the rhythm of my footsteps in the cedar bark and gravel.
You may wish to have alternate walking routes for more than variety. You may walk through certain special areas when you need to think or meditate. Others may have particular beauty at different times of the day or year. Others may offer shelter from the weather (wind, rain or sun) or increase your exposure to wind or sun. You may even want to have an indoor walking place such as a large mall when the weather is too inclement or at night when other walks may be unsafe.
Finally, above all, your walking time is a time to leave the gadgets at home or the office: the cellular phone, the walkman, the pager. This is your time. Use it to focus mentally. I don't need a walkman because when I am walking, a song always seems to arise in my head. Sometimes it is triggered by something sensed along the way. For example, when I was in Grades 4 and 5, I attended a small, two-room schoolhouse, Hillside School. Hillside had its own school song and now every time I walk by Hillside Avenue, the song pops into my mind. Hillside, that's the school for me, busy as a bee, better come and see....
A word about walking companions. Walking can be enjoyed alone or with a companion or two. The problem with walking with someone, even a loved one, or with a dog is that your stride and pace may not fit well with theirs. If that is the case with a human companion, one of you may come back from the walk more tired than the other. Being tall, I do not blend well walking with a shorter person. I either shorten my stride unnaturally or they speed up their pace. In either event, one of us will be excessively tired. I am not saying to always walk alone, just that you should consider the purpose of your walk before setting out. Similarly, walking with a dog may also disrupt our rhythm, especially a dog who always pulls you ahead on its leash or always stops to survey the olfactory landscape.
Walking for Transportation
Walking was the first mode of human transportation, but we in North America seem to have relegated the practice to an inferior status. Many will not even walk to the corner store or to public transportation. However, walking for transportation can not only save us money, it can also have positive environmental effects.
For most of us, the upkeep of a personal vehicle ranks only behind housing and food as a major annual expenditure. If we could eliminate or drastically reduce our need for a personal vehicle, we could save enough money annually to significantly alter our overall financial picture. What could you do if your annual expenditures were reduced by $1,000 or more?
Walking for transportation is very environmentally friendly. Governments around the world have been debating measures to reduce the release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. One of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions in North America is the automobile. As well, they are also the major source of a number of local air pollutants: several thousand different chemical compounds have been found in tail-pipe exhausts, not to mention the solid matter lost from body rust and tire and brake wear. Reducing the usage of personal vehicles by choosing alternate transportation can be the greatest single action an individual may take to save our environment. For example, if we walked to work one day per week, we would reduce the environmental pollution impact of our commute to work by approximately 20%.
I often walk downtown to shop or dine or for business appointments, a distance of about three kilometres (two miles). If I am not up to the walk home or the weather changes, I can take the bus back. By walking, I gain exercise, thinking time and save at least $1.50 (the price of a bus ticket). If I were to regularly work downtown, I probably would bus down and walk home (I get a good sweat going when walking briskly.). Based on five days per week, 50 weeks per year, I would save approximately $375 per year by walking one way to work each day over taking the bus and much more than that over using an automobile.
When walking for transportation on a regular basis, I recommend having several different routes. They may not always be the same distance or the shortest distance from point to point. Diverting a few blocks to include a park, riverside or shoreline stretch may be well worth the extra distance, especially when the day has been highly stressful. Think of how much more enjoyable your family life can be if you arrive home from work refreshed and relaxed rather than tense and upset. Exercises such as walking in which the large muscles of the body move in a steady rhythm can often do more to relieve body and emotional tension than any drug or therapy.
I also recommend comfort be placed above vanity. If you have a specific dress code at work, there are many ways to still dress comfortably for your walking. Leave your dress clothes or uniform at work either in a locker or your office. If your employer does not provide such space, ask that it be made available. Wear good walking shoes and carry dress shoes. I have always been a proponent of the backpack rather than the briefcase. It allows you to freely swing your arms in a good walking cadence, and today there are many different sizes which will hold all necessary items.
Walking for transportation is also a good time to walk with a friend as long as you are not too mismatched in stride and pace. For several years I walked over a mile every morning to catch a bus to work. Even during the bitterly cold winter mornings, the time and distance flew by when I met my good friend Bob Christensen along the way. We always found some topic for discussion to pass the time. Despite extremely adverse weather conditions during some of those years, those walks stand out as among my most memorable because of his company.
Walking for transportation can be combined with walking for exercise or walking to think. Variety is the spice for continued enjoyment of walking. So loosen up and enjoy and you'll be walking gently through life.
Walking for Fitness
Cardiovascular diseases remain at the top of the list for causes of death in North America. And yet, most are highly preventable. Many of these diseases result from overweight and the underuse of skeletal muscles. These muscles, especially the large ones in the legs, abdomen and back, assist the heart in pumping blood throughout the body. When we exercise, we not only strengthen the heart and all other muscles, we reduce the amount of work that the heart must do. When we walk and the skeletal muscles bear their proper share of the work, blood circulation speeds up but the heart rate and the blood pressure drop.
Most healthcare workers recommend exercise to increase fitness as one of the cornerstones of health. They endorse walking as one of the best exercises which can prevent heart and circulatory disorders, control weight, aid digestion and elimination, prevent and cure some respiratory disorders, aid sleep and reduce physical, emotional, nervous, or psychological tensions.
Fitness experts prescribe exercises which give continuous, rhythmic movement as the foundation for any exercise program. The most recommended of these are swimming, rowing, cycling, skating, cross-country skiing, running and, at the top of the list, walking. All of these exercises are aerobic activities, those which burn oxygen at a rate at which the heart and lungs can supply it to the muscle tissue, and is the most efficient way to burn body fat.
According to fitness guru Covert Bailey, an aerobic exercise is one that is steady and non-stop, lasts at least 12 minutes, has a comfortable pace and uses the muscles of the lower body. Walking has several advantages over these other forms of exercise. Unlike skiing, skating, cycling or rowing, walking is inexpensive requiring no special, often expensive, equipment. It can be done almost anywhere, unlike swimming, and in all types of weather, and it is less stressful on the body than running, especially for the overweight.
The one drawback to walking as a fitness builder and fat burner is that it takes longer to achieve the same result than the more intense aerobic exercises such as running or cross- country skiing. Walking at a brisk pace reduces the time differential between walking and other aerobic exercises. However, walking's versatility and low expense makes the extra 20 to 30 minutes required well worth the time. A good walking program can also be a positive first step to gaining or regaining fitness prior to undertaking one of the other activities. Walking can also be used as part of a cross-training program, for example, walking when conditions are unsafe for cycling or running.
One of the most important aspects of walking for fitness is to find your unique pace. This is a pace where you are comfortable and breathing at a rate that is neither too slow nor too fast. I have heard that if you could sing the first line to America ("My country tis of thee") without gasping for breath you were going slow enough and if you could sing the second line ("Sweet land of liberty") without a second breath, you were going too slow. (Sorry, non-Americans, we'll have to come up with another song or other lyrics, but the tune is the same as God Save the Queen.)
Once you have found your pace, walking should be an easy and enjoyable exercise. Of course, proper clothing and footwear for the conditions are an equally important components of walking for fitness. Nothing can test your resolve to continue exercising like blisters or chafing. Finally, I also recommend finding a walking route which minimizes your breathing of vehicular exhausts or other pollutants. There is no health gain when you breathe in harmful pollutants during exercise.
Like walking for transportation, walking for fitness may be combined with other purposes for walking to enhance the pleasure.
Walking to See (and Smell and Touch)
One of the great aspects of walking is that it allows you to reach places inaccessible by most other forms of transportation. It also allows you to travel at a pace at which the senses can function at their peak. We pay a high price when we travel by vehicle, train, or aircraft, locked in speeding metallic cages, our senses separated from the real world. When the landscape passes at high speeds, we see only the largest features; the small details are lost. At a walking pace, we see those details and can stop to give them proper attention. We may increase our pleasures by combining walking with other pleasurable pastimes: birding, nature watching, people watching, and photography.
Walking has been the transportation of choice for the great explorers, naturalists, nature artists and photographers. We too can be explorers when we move off the main thoroughfares to the less obvious paths and streets. Walking gives us back our senses to renew our acquaintance with the Earth and our neighbours. That renewal can reinforce our desire to live more gently on the Earth.
Walking to sense our surroundings will likely be at a different pace than walking for exercise. It may involve more stopping, to literally stop to smell the roses or the lilacs or the new mown hay. Walking to sense is often heightened when we share the time with those with similar interests. For example, an extra pair of eyes or ears for birding can help locate more birds or pick out individuals in dense habitat.
I don't want to leave the impression that walking is a totally solitary affair. At times, walking alone is important to us because we need some private time to think, to reflect, to heal. I have already given caveats on walking with others when walking for exercise. Walking with others, however, can heighten our enjoyment of a walk. It gives us a time to share: observations, ideas, feelings, dreams. I can think of few better ways to spend time than a walk hand-in-hand with a loved one.
Walking can remove some of the formalities of negotiations by changing the place and the pace of meetings. It allows us to become in step with others and by being in a common rhythm, we can better address common concerns and problems. Walking can build a synergy, combining two energies to undertake the task at hand. Many times breakthroughs in international negotiations have come when participants went for a stroll together.
Teaching is another social activity which often uses walking as an aid. For example, physicians and surgeons use rounds in a hospital as a teaching aid. The field trip is an indispensable part of the education process for many subjects, and walking is often the prime form of transportation at this time. Many great philosophers and religious leaders have taught their students and disciples while walking.
Social walking can be combined with sensing walks to heighten the pleasure. Walking tours or walks through public gardens are pleasurable pastimes which can be inexpensive and are environmentally benign.
Walking for the Mind and Spirit
Although I love all forms of walking, walking as a mental, emotional and spiritual exercise is my favourite type of walk. The action of walking warms my blood, loosens muscle and increases the level of pleasure-giving endorphins in my brain. When I ran regularly, I would reach this level after about 15 to 20 minutes. Others have called it the runner's high; I called it third wind then. When walking, it takes about 30 to 40 minutes. In the state of third wind, my mind will focus completely. To focus on trying to solve a problem; to focus on enhancing my creative ability; to focus on renewing my spirit, I alone decide whether I am walking to think or to not think about a specific issue.
Yes, I said to not think about an issue. To not think is a form of problem solving meditation wherein the problem is given over to the subconscious. It is an expression of the Zen method of no-mind where we deliberately empty the conscious mind and allow the subconscious to take control. Walking helps to induce this state by using its rhythm as a focus for the conscious mind. In using the not think technique we first express the problem in a mental image, focusing for a moment to clearly see it. Then we forget it. Put it right out of our conscious mind. At this point, we must relax and not force a solution, which will come, eventually. Walking helps to remove the conscious expression of the problem as well as helping us to relax. I have used this technique frequently over my career to help solve a problem or relieve a mental block to writing or creating. It has helped to focus on the details which had been lost in the forest of sensory or mental overload.
If you still feel you are trying to force a solution, pick up the pace. I have found it hard to dwell on a thought when walking or running at a fast pace. This was emphasized to me when, during a walking race, I lost concentration and attempted to think about technique instead of letting it happen. By worrying, my pace dropped dramatically. Only by forcing it back up was I able to purge the worries and fears from my mind.
Whenever I need to generate new ideas or review current events, I often let the subconscious point me in the most fruitful direction. With the body striding in smooth, subconscious movement, the mind tosses out possible subjects for inner discussion: last week's meetings -- boring stuff, food for naps; a news item from the morning paper -- ain't it awful; the turning of the leaves -- ah, another summer is drawing to a close. Beginning a new life...that thought catches. Observations, facts, phrases, associations -- all tumble out onto the stage. An idea for an article emerges; a new line for a poem.
Walking also has impacts on our psychological state of mind. Years back when I was studying transpersonal psychology, there was an expression used to break oneself out of a bad mental state: Move your ass. Research had found that movement, whether running, walking, dancing, aerobics, etc., could profoundly change one's emotional state for the better. If not a long-term cure, movement at least gave temporary relief. There is likely a role in this process for endorphins which are natural mood elevators, but movements such as walking also break the connection between body and mind, thus relieving tension and physical pain.
Finally, walking is an intense spirit booster, especially when undertaken in a special place. I have always found more spiritual renewal when out in nature than when in the confines of a house of worship. Walking puts me into the process, allows me to take an active role in my spiritual renewal and shows me that I am still alive and well. I walk therefore I live.
All walking must be a direct and personal experience. Until you have walked, really walked, the pleasures of walking will remain a mystery. Until you feel the rhythm of your muscles, the touch of the wind on your face, until you have seen the changing scenery or smelled the blossoms of spring, until you have experienced the peace of mind that a good walk can give you, you will not know what you have been missing. Physician, heal thyself! I'm going for a walk!
The Magic of Walking by Keith C. Heidorn, PhD . ©1996, All Rights Reserved.
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