Sunday, January 4, 2015

In Praise of Walking

I was a high-school athlete until I discovered that I did not like having my ass handed to me by older, bigger, tougher boys.

Then I was a runner in days when Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running was the talk of the town (1977–early 1980s). Fixx’s massive heart attack while running in 1984 wasn’t the gong that stopped me in my tracks. I stopped running in the early 1990s after marriage led to weight gain, and I had begun thinking I might want to have my own knees and hips when I turned 60.

I have been walking for twenty years, and I still have my own knees and hips. There are other benefits of walking too, some of which Kevin Paul Dupont hits on in his piece in the Sunday Globe. 

Dupont had me with his lead: “Not likely that Henry David Thoreau would have bought into today’s health clubs, with their high-tech equipment and steep monthly membership fees.” I’m no longer sure I buy into Thoreau, but I agree with Henry’s presumed opinion of health clubs.

I’ve never been a club guy, am probably not even a clubbable man, in the old snobby sense. If you’ve been reading “Witness,” you know that I am skeptical about Eastern spiritual systems and all of their New Age offshoots. What you might not know is that I turn an equally cautious eye on every new exercise rage, as well.

I think New Age spirituality and gym fads are related. All of them start with yoga, which yokes them (that’s a pun). So don’t get me started on Pilates, spinning, step training, or Zumba. I have a dear friend who teaches Zumba, and I hear she’s an awwwwesome teacher, but um, not for me, thanks.

Unlike Thoreau, I don’t feel required to go to nature. On the Camino de Santiago, which I walked in 2012 (picture above), I learned that a pilgrimage is not a nature walk. It is a walk through the world, though a world (with its cities and towns) where the pilgrim is a stranger. On my pilgrimage to Montreal, I plan to walk where there are people, not bears. That will mean walking via towns, not wilderness trails.

Dupont figures that he walks about one thousand miles per year. I’m on a pace to do twice that (six miles per day), and that’s not accounting for home-to-Montreal in May-June, four hundred miles in five weeks.

But even that probably sounds wimpy to the health-club nut. As Dupont writes, many of us are “guilted into our athletic rebirth this time every year. Our thoughts, stoked by endless TV ads, typically turn to the aforementioned tony health clubs or such lofty goals as ‘running Boston,’ Kilimanjaro, or signing up for a wacky endurance race like, say, lugging cement blocks through a snake-filled desert. Possibly as part of a reality TV series. Maybe paired up with a Kardashian.”

Dupont notes, “If you want to start with walking and work up to running, that’s fine, but not necessary, and it frequently leads to yet another derailed renaissance. Too many runners surrender to worn-out knees and hips, or simply pack it in at the mere thought of taking a beating on the road and needing a day or two to recover.

“Walking done right requires no recovery, no aches, no pains. A few of us are born runners. Virtually every one of us is a born walker. Think of how we celebrate a baby’s first step.

“Overall, I say, far easier to build strength and stamina as a devoted walker, and do so with virtually no risk of injury or debilitating wear and tear. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, was born in 460 BC and lived to age 90. Sounds like he had the walking thing nailed.” As Dupont notes, it was Hippocrates who called walking “man’s best medicine.”

As a devoted Catholic, I believe that old ways are best ways. So I’ll stick with St. Augustine, not Deepak Chopra, thanks very much. And on the health front, give me Hippocrates, not a quick Fixx.

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