The healing properties of a great walk

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Chained to a post, the bike languishes in the baby barn like a forgotten pony. It’s not its fault. It’s done nothing wrong to deserve its alienation from my increasingly fit company. It’s just that, gradually, over the past year or so, it’s been replaced in my affections by a sturdy pair of walking shoes.

Nowadays, they take me everywhere within a five-kilometer radius of my home in downtown Moncton: to the lake, the park, the grocery store, the cafe that serves the best coffee east of Montreal. They are admirably beat up, like a hobo’s boots.

I began my deliberate, quotidian, 45-minute marches for no other reason than to see if I, a man in his early 50s, could muster enough self-discipline to stick with something that had nothing to do with the usual mid-life preoccupation of making money. It was easy, at first. Then, it got hard. Walking every day without exception, I discovered, was as much a mental as physical game.

Still, in a recent broadcast of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, host Michael Enright explored what appears to be a renaissance for the alternately graceful and rigorous pastime of perambulation. His guests included a psychologist, a biologist and an urban planner. The show’s promo put it this way: “It seems that walking has come back in vogue. Walkable neighbourhoods are a cornerstone of current urban planning and they help drive real estate values up. People are moving back to the downtown cores of cities, where they can walk to do their shopping or get to work.”

Our ancient history, of course, supports the walker. (Even though, over the past 100 years, we’ve done everything we can to render him extinct – from inventing the internal combustion engine to enshrining the American television sitcom).

Says the CBC blurb: “Humans and their forebears have spent five million years perfecting one of the talents that make us most unique as a species. . .the ability to walk upright. We evolved to walk on two legs. Our bodies are meant to walk, and our biology wants, even requires, us to walk.”

Event the Internet is now telling us to walk. Here are some words of advice from About.com’s Wendy Bumgardner: “Walkers live longer. The Honolulu Heart Study of 8,000 men found that walking just two miles a day cut the risk of death almost in half. The walkers’ risk of death was especially lower from cancer.”

Not only that, she says, walkers are smarter: “A study of people over 60 funded by the National Council on Aging, published in the July 29, 1999, issue of ‘Nature’, found that walking 45 minutes a day at a 16-minute mile pace increased the thinking skills of those over 60. The participants started at 15 minutes of walking and built up their time and speed. The result was that the same people were mentally sharper after taking up this walking program.

They’re more emotionally stable: “Walking. . .leads to the release of the body’s natural happy drugs – endorphins. Most people notice an improvement in mood. A November 9, 1999 study published in the ‘Annals of Behavioral Medicine’ showed that university students who walked. . .regularly had lower stress levels than couch potatoes or those who exercised strenuously.”

Not inconsequentially, walkers are also more successful than couch potatoes in one other important arena of human interaction: “What better reason for men to take a brisk two mile walk each day – a reduced risk of impotence from mid-life onward.”

For all these reasons and more, I shall remain an ardent walker. My wife and I are spending Christmas week, this year, in Manhattan (a strolling man’s paradise). Someday, when we’re fit enough, we plan to tackle the Appalachian Trail (at least, a chunk of it). Who knows, we may even find ourselves, one fine year, trudging along the Camino de Santiago in northwestern Spain, en route to the holy shrine of the apostle St. James.

In an hour, maybe two, I’ll get out my bike. But first, a good walk beckons.

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