Over the five summer months since late April I done 400 miles of my 10 mile daily commute on foot walking cross country between my home in Newport Pagnell and my work here.
I started 2011 with a real age 10 years old than my true age (RealAge.com). I was nearly 26 stone (165 kg). I had started a family and was coming at the end of the baby years as the children went up to full time schooling. I had had three kids in two years nine months with 16.5 months between each. We had married in our mid 30s and only just finished having our children before turning 40. We went from a live-life-large couple out dancing and partying five nights a week to a couple who found only 15 hours to be independent adults with no guarantee of sleep or unbroken sleep in a period nine days longer that it took the Brits to win World War Two. Money, time, energy, social life collapsed to a singularity that was family.
This matters. We will be in our 60s when our kids start to move on to University and independence and I don’t want to have a life expectancy and quality of life 10+ years shorter then. It was our choice, we do not regret the costs and we love dearly the family we created. However, we didn’t expect the unintended consequences, and few do, and it is now time to deal with these. My fight back begins with a walk. This year that walk was lead by Kristina Sodomkova and went over to the Moulsoe woods to see bluebells and lambs at Easter.
Those walks started by taking me through lush meadows of new born lambs and sensual glades of bluebells. This imagery of spring aptly leads into renewal and signal the shift from the deprivations of midlife family life to the inspiration of renewal. I want to convey to you that walking is three things. It is do-ably OK, it is fit and above it is fun. You will get an idea of the general benefits of and opportunities for walking.
1) OK means walking is do-able
I’ll try to explain why walking is so feasible and a great entry back into physical activity, especially if you are obese.
Walking is free and freely available.
Walking starts at home and it starts in the home and it starts with no equipment at all. In the UK there are 140,000 miles of public rights of way with no cars on them and 2,835 miles of these are in central Bedfordshire alone. There are further discretionary paths opening up all the time with the permission of landowners in response to countryside stewardship schemes. In contrast we have only 2,700 miles of motorways, 30,000 miles of ‘A’ roads, 19,000 miles of ‘B’ roads. The network of cross country footpaths is extensive. They are also ancient with many founded as trading livestock droving routes with some datable to at least the stone age. They are all free to access on foot and some on horse back and by mountain bike.
Walking put minimal strain on your joints and you can start slow and build yourself up.
When you are obese there are relatively few entry level activities that you can choose. Provided that you do not have not have knee problems then walking is a good first choice. Walking is progressive and you can slowly build up distance endurance and then improve speed.
Other choices might be dance or swimming. There are gym options, but they involve specialised equipment as most standard equipment is not built for large heavy people. There are logistical challenges and costs to accessing many of these options.
Walking starts from home. In to work I’ve one 4-5 mile straight route and then can stretch that out elliptically in either direction to near 7 miles. This provides a variety of distance challenges and mental thrill of novelty.
Walking as commuting is motivational as it is directly purposeful.
In order to, not only, succeed with weight loss but to find new lifelong enjoyable physical outlets I needed to get motivated in a profound way. It proved that viewing the walking as commuting and thus an essential part of my core daily way of life was the right attitude. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs says that it is more urgent to meet basic needs, such as for food, air and water, rather than higher abstract ones such as physical appearance or beauty
In contrast, it is very easy to be intimidated by the “muscle beach” effect of seeing fit people trying to get fitter and fitter -they seem to be there feel the burn and the pain as they strive for seeming perfection. I have been known to go to a gym and walk right out again hoping I could come back when it was quieter. When you are trying to get started with fitness you need to make life as easy as possible and not struggle with needless challenges. Some obese walkers get issues with verbal abuse if walking in built up areas, but that is not my problem as my routes are rural.
2) Fit means walking is good for physical wellbeing
“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.” George Trevelyan, 1913. Walking helps in 4 areas:
Bones and balance
Fat metabolism and diabetes
Uplift of energy
Specifically, these health benefits make a difference to me. My first commuting walks took more than 2hrs @ 2-2.25 mph and now I can do that at >3.6 mph due to the improving levels of fitness. Strengthening bones and balance are important in life as they provide the platform for safety and ability in all things physical, such as dance and recovering from trips and falls. Over grass I can burn 225-275 kCal a mile, which means every two days I’ve burn off another pound of fat –all other things being equal. Against intuition, moderate walking actually provides an energy uplift for the day as the product of both the physical and mental stimulation and the proliferation of mitochondria energy providers and muscle in the body.
I have not yet had the avoidable misfortune of diabetes, and I hope never to do so. Diabetes is the 7th most serious killer in the United States. Obesity doubles the chances of getting it and roughly 11-12% of adults will get it in middle age. Personally I would say that 80% of the people that I know who have weight issues have or have become diabetic.
My wife thinks that my core fitness from my earlier farming days has survived as at time I can be ahead of her in the car on my bicycle doing 19-20 mph comfortably. On longer routes over challenging rolling countryside I can now sustain speeds of 14mph. On television she has seen men who weigh 18-20 stone who can no longer work as their bodies and joints are failing. My weight, at that time, was nearer 23-24 stone.
Fun means walking is good for mental wellbeing
In addition to the great social benefits of walking, and the chance conversation with farmers and fellow walkers, there are three main psychological ways that I’ve noticed that walking helps give me a strong mental boost.
1) Sunlight –hormonal mood boost
Sunlight provides huge uplifts of mood and energy in the spring and summer and slows us down for the winter. Mankind is still essentially seasonal. This helps makes good uses of abundant and then scarce food resources. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal Blues affects many people and the prevalence in mid latitude countries is estimated between 10-25%. Outside day-light levels are from 100-500 times stronger than those found under artificial conditions. Melatonin is the main hormone, but there are others.
1) Nature heals
To me nature is interesting, varied and beautiful. I was raised as a country boy and trained as an agriculturalist and environmentalist. I have a deep understanding of the countryside. The effect is that my sensory creative brain (right half) takes over allowing my rational analytic brain (left half) to relax. This is why so many people find city parks very restorative when they stop their schedules and enjoy a break. Even patients within sight of nature heals faster than those cut off from it. This right-left brain changing of the guard is the major source of creative thought and insight. It also happens in the bath, EUREKA!!
There are a powerful combination of mental benefits for being in nature. Nature promotes a greater mindfulness of your world and sensory world. Fifty percent of the time, on average, in the urban world people’s minds are wondering and day dreaming, even during sex. In nature there is the thrill of breaking your habitual routines to fascinate and delight of its beauties, such as lush green meadows of new born lambs, sneaky ephemeral glades of fragrant bluebells, the rare thrill of badger and deer breaking cover beside you, etc. Walking home through a moonlit wood on a still night can be said to be an arousing experience of the senses and mind even for a well adjust country lad, but pleasantly so! In nature you acquire a much greater sense of yourself, your place, and your survival and these give you greater confidence, self esteem, respect, and control throughout life.
Meditative thinking rhythm
One of the unexpected benefits of walking is its meditative power. This is wonderful for ruminating on ideas that one has got blocked on during the day. It stems from the fact that walking is rhythmic and physically relaxing. Team-sports are distracting when people yell at you and the chaotic flow of play, but on a walk no one is yelling and the route is clear. Strenuous sports demand your utmost mental effort to find the next quanta of effort and to endure the burning pain, but a walk is within the comfort zone and can be left to lower brain processes.
The walks provide a vital restorative cordon sanitaire between the stresses of home and office in a way few other froms of commuting could, especially the former 15 minute drives by car. I’ve noticed on days that I have to travel for work that like for like, hour for hour, I feel deader to world and deader in myself if I do not get them now. The dieter’s two greatest weapons are de-stressing and getting enough sleep. Cross country walking takes me there!
Hippocrates said that “walking is man’s best medicine.” I think that for me that is a profound truism, the extent of which I’ve yet to fully see. I’ve shown you that walking is readily doable and builds both physical and mental well being. It is a great platform for recovery. It leads in many directions and it is complemented by many other synergists in life. It doesn’t stop there. It is on going. My grandfather was in the Durham Light Infantry and their quick marches were in the range 140-180 strides per minute. I’ve already been looking into his regimental music with a view to serious power walking in the winter months.