An elemental part of who we are
Walking is arguably our most distinctive characteristic as a species. Humans are the only fully bipedal primate. Lacking strength and speed, this unique gait gave our ancestors stamina, and an evolutionary edge over other animals. University of British Columbia psychologist Liane Gabora believes that the development of creative thinking (another of our defining features) and bipedalism are distinctly connected. Walking is an elemental part of who we are. This is one of the reasons why, over the millennia, as we settled in cities and sat down in cars and at our desks, instead of exerting ourselves to secure food and shelter, we have become predisposed to so many diseases and ailments.
By using our bioelectrical, biochemical, respiratory, muscular, cardiovascular and skeletal systems in such a controlled manner, walking gives our bodies the workout they need to function optimally. This measured effort protects people from obesity, coronary disease, heart attacks, strokes and Type 2 diabetes, which is a leading cause of vision loss, kidney failure and limb amputation. Walking builds bone mass, strengthens the muscles in your arms and legs, and gives your joints better range of motion. It enhances your balance, preventing falls, and eases back pain. It lowers the risk of glaucoma by reducing intraocular pressure. Tests on mice have shown that brisk walking may slow the death of light-sensitive retinal cells by stimulating production of a protein called bdnf, a discovery that could help prevent macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among the elderly.
Ours brains get a boost too. Walk for half an hour, five times a week, says an American educational alliance called Every Body Walk!, and the endorphins will ease stress, anger and confusion. Going on a stroll “with good company and in pleasant surroundings” can ward off depression and anxiety, counsels the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
Nature therapy and holistic health
Nature can also be a powerful tonic, and walking in the woods produces a kind of multiplier effect. A pioneering non-profit in the United States, Warrior Hike, sends veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from PTSD on months-long through-hikes of the Appalachian Trail and other long-distance routes. “People have bad days,” says ex-Marine Sean Gobin, the program’s founder. “You’re dealing with your own struggles, the weather, the terrain. How you cope with that and interact with other people facilitates personal development. If you’re in a group, you try to help others when they’re down. That helps you regain a sense of camaraderie, that feeling of being on a mission, which gives you a sense of purpose again.”
Walking isn’t a magic-bullet solution to any particular problem. It leads to holistic health — including environmental, economic and social health — slowly, gradually, one step at a time. Which may be why Hippocrates called walking “man’s best medicine.”
The internet is flooded with academic papers that support this ancient aphorism. Rather than deconstruct the corporeal rewards of walking from head to toe, let’s focus on a survey study conducted in 2008. Two scientists from University College London did a meta-analysis of walking research published between 1970 and 2007 in English-language, peer-reviewed journals. They looked at almost 4,300 articles and concentrated on 18. These studies, which investigated the well-being and walking habits of about 460,000 people, lasted an average of 11.3 years. A comprehensive range of health characteristics and events were considered: age, smoking, alcohol use, heart attack, heart failure, coronary artery bypass surgery, stroke and death. The analysis, as summarized by Harvard Medical School, determined that walking “reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31 percent, and it cut the risk of dying during the study period by 32 percent. These benefits were equally robust in men and women. Protection was evident even at distances of just five-and-a-half miles per week and at a pace as casual as about two miles per hour.”
Overriding our own brains
So, why don’t we get up from the couch and go for these half-hour walks every day? According to Canadian psychologist Michael Vallis, our internal programming tells us to stay put.
Western society has “advanced” to the point where the brain’s operating system does not serve our best interests, says Vallis, who run the Behaviour Change Institute, which teaches healthcare providers how to promote healthy behaviour among their patients. To successfully adapt to our largely urban environment, we need to override three of the basic rules that govern our behaviour. To save calories, we are hardwired to choose the path of least resistance. This made sense when we were struggling to survive on the savannah. Today, it’s the reason we stand still on escalators and park close to the doors at the mall. Second, we are prisoners of the pleasure principle: avoid pain, seek pleasure. Our choices used to be “run or get eaten by a bear” and “eat some berries or starve.” Now we can sit on the La-Z-Boy gorging on jelly doughnuts without fear of being attacked by so much as a mosquito. Finally, we go for instant gratification. We watch TV while shoveling in potato chips, instead of asking, “How will I feel tomorrow if I take a walk today?”