Walking – What’s the Point?
On El Camino de Santiago
What is the point? It’s another New Year – you’ve drunk your fill, had too many roast dinners, and grimace at the thought of ever eating another After Eight. You may be feeling slightly guilty, and as it’s that time of year, that exercise resolution you’ve committed to is the first voice in your head whispering shortly after you’ve tapped the snooze button. You groan, hear the tapping of light rain on the window and come to the simple conclusion that it’s far warmer in bed, and anything can wait until tomorrow. Trouble is, it could be raining the same time tomorrow as well.
If you don’t like walking as a means to keep fit, then simply don’t do it. It’s not difficult to fathom out that if you don’t enjoy a particular form of exercise, then your motivation to actually go and do it won’t be exactly, well, motivating. You could probably go against your inner grain, what you know to be true, and force yourself out for a few miles every day to keep tabs on your new year’s resolution. However, if it ain’t your thing, then choose something you do enjoy, or perhaps used to enjoy when you did it years ago. Maybe swimming, cycling, running, yoga, a game of football. Whatever used to inspire you, probably still will.
However, if you do like to walk or hike, or at least used to, let me try and induce some form of physical response. These are the main reasons I walk, and the reasons I know, from my experiences to be true.
Theoretically, it shouldn’t cost you anything. We all have some form of suitable footwear, a warm jacket lurking in the wardrobe, a hat and gloves for when it really bites out there. Walking is the one form of activity that you can take up without reaching for your wallet or scanning the pages in Amazon’s hiking department.
As you progress, there is gear that will help you. Waterproof boots perhaps, more comfortable base layers such as wool, a waterproof jacket possibly. Nice gear will help but use what stuff you have now, and if you need to, buy yourself something as a reward after a few weeks.
Almost anyone can do it
From infants to those in their nineties, and older, barring physical disabilities, we can all walk. It requires no training to start, no studying, and as mentioned above, no financial outlay. Walking is a natural instinct we all have.
You may perhaps be carrying a few more pounds than you’d like, but even you, yes you, can manage to get out and go for a quarter of a mile.
Work up from there – your body will always adapt to do what you are asking it to do. Believe me, if you can do that quarter mile on day one, in six months’ time it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could be thirty with a backpack. Hard to believe? No, it’s true.
Repeatedly partaking in a physical activity teaches the body one thing; that it needs to adapt to the task you are asking of it. Basically, the more you do it, the better you become. You’ll lose weight, gain muscle, become quicker, be able to walk for longer but above all, you’ll feel good for it.
There’s a low chance of injury
You can get injured walking, I’ve been there myself. However, I’ve never been injured whilst training, out for a few miles just topping up the fitness levels. I have come a cropper out in the wilds, with a pack, but carrying 20 kilos at 10,000 elevation whilst trying to pull in a thirty mile day is completely different to the walking I’m trying to encourage.
Walking is a gentle form of exercise. It is an impact exercise but an extremely low form of it. You can keep your chances of injury very low by sticking to some easy principles:
Try and walk off road. Easier said than done at this time of year when a lot of the countryside is water logged but tarmac walking is harder on the muscles. Great if you want to toughen your soles for some far bigger hiking later in the year, but stay off it if you can. You shouldn’t get injured on hard surfaces if you’re sensible, and better on them than nothing at all.
Don’t walk too far too soon. Some of you can go and walk for perhaps three miles after not exercising for years, others may only manage a quarter of a mile. Stick to what you feel comfortable with and don’t get carried away by doing more than you should.
Gradually increase your distance, I’d suggest upping by a half mile to mile each week, obviously depending on how much you kicked off with.
Keep your speed to around two to three miles per hour. Most of us walk at three miles per hour on flat ground, this is an average. If you’re unfit, or carrying a few extra pounds, then this will be lower. Increasing your speed increases your chance of injury.
Don’t carry any weight in a pack, save perhaps some rain gear, water and a snack. Leave backpacks for a few weeks’ time.
Walking gets us outside
If you don’t get out in the countryside that often, it’s hard to explain, and even harder to quantify how it makes you feel. Because all your attention needs to focus on is foot placement, the mind is free to wander.
Clean air is a wonderful tonic. After spending most of our time in either an office or our house, where modern technology limits air flow, your lungs will love you out in the woods, the oxygen is richer out there.
Getting outside takes you away from the hustle and bustle of your everyday life. The environment might seem unfamiliar at first but one thing you will notice is how less stressful everything is.
Get your dose of Vitamin D
Although we can obtain some of the wonder vitamin from foods such as oily fish, meat and eggs, the easiest and most abundant source is sunlight. Vitamin D has created a lot of press over the past couple of years but the essential benefits are helping the body to absorb calcium and phosphorus – both essential for healthy teeth and bones.
Sunshine also makes you feel great!
Walking wakes you up
A struggle it may be to get up somewhat earlier (and I can relate to this because I struggle sometimes early mornings), but it does wake you up. By the time you have returned from your early morning adventure, I guarantee you’ll feel fantastic, albeit a little sore during the first few weeks. You’re wide awake, able to perform your morning tasks with ease and the day seems smoother.
Winds you down
Conversely, if you choose to walk in the evening after work, walking winds you down. Despite exercising, your muscles will thank you for the favour. Your appetite will increase because you’re burning more calories and food will be more enjoyable. It relaxes you for the evening and prepares the body for a more restful sleep.
Provides thinking space
I touched on a few articles just browsing the web last year concerning how walking promotes better and more productive thinking time. This was something I knew already and had noticed when I first started.
Most of lead busy lives, meaning we have little time to think, at least about the important stuff. We think we have time to get in our heads, but usually it’s confined to the last few minutes before we fall asleep, which isn’t much time at all.
With walking, away from work or home, our lives are simplified somewhat. It’s not hectic, all we have to really do is watch where we are going. This frees up the mind and we can use it to wander mentally. Instead of skipping over the surface of aspects of our lives we feel we need to look at, we are able to look at them in depth, and more importantly, find the answers we are looking for.
To take it to the extreme, when on a thru-hike for several months, we can really dive deep down into our own heads. I explained this in The Last Englishman, my Pacific Crest Trail book. I wasn’t aware of it at first but found myself thinking so much about my life that I led back home, that I was able to dissect it at great depth, figure out what I was doing wrong and how I could be a better person. It’s better explained by my writing in the book:
When we look back as an outsider to the lives we left, we can act as an impartial observer and see what we are doing wrong, what we can improve on and what we are doing right. Call it a reality check, if you like. Sometimes we are aware of how we can improve our lives, but when we are actually embroiled in them, changes are difficult to make. An escape to nature is a perfect time to take one step back and study the situation we have left. Invariably we return as improved individuals with passionate ideas on how to be better people.
Self-explanatory really! I’d hope we are all happy with our bodies, whatever shape or size but we do also know that carrying excess weight exposes us to a whole host of health issues. It’s simple, the more you walk, when coupled with watching what you eat, means we lose weight.
Endorphins are morphine-like chemicals produced by the body that help diminish pain while triggering positive feelings. Exercise is one of the best ways to release these crazy little characters. Remember when you played in that football match, swam for what seemed like an eternity, got lost in a decent run or returned from a mammoth bike ride? You get home, cool down, have a drink or a snack and realise how tired you are? Shortly after, perhaps after you’ve taken a shower, you feel the urge to take one of those rewarding, deep sighs coupled with a deep breath. You feel great! This is the endorphin effect and simply put, it’s the bodies’ way of saying;
‘That was fantastic! I really enjoyed it, can we do it more often? I’m a little fitter now, in a better position to sleep well, deal with illness and injury. Thanks!’
Ever seen a dog in the park suddenly just go berserk and start running around in circles, or changing direction quickly for no reason. They look happy and they are! This is the same thing, their endorphins are running riot and unlike us, dogs manifest this feeling physically.
It’s the body rewards system and it’s a no brainer. It loves you exercising and wants to make you feel good as a reward, and in the hope that you’ll go out and do it again.
These are the main reasons I walk.
Next Blog Post Coming Soon – Part Two – Setting Targets to Make it Easier