By Clive Lindley-Jones | January 19, 2015 5:03 pm
Exhortations to move are common. These blogs are no exception. Perhaps far too many of my blogs have harped on about the health benefits of movement.
However, Professor Ulf Ekelund, a senior scientist in the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, has just published major new research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which followed 334,161 Europeans for 12 years. It suggests that eliminating inactivity in Europe would cut mortality rates by nearly 7.5%, or 676,000 deaths, but eliminating obesity would cut rates by just 3.6%.
The research shows that being sedentary may be twice as deadly as being obese. I am encouraged to see, that, despite the few months of inconvenience and £1.3million cost, road works in my local St. Clements roundabout, should make the area safer for all of us cyclists to negotiate, so encouraging us to cycle rather than take the bus and potentially, reducing the risks of us being part of those 676,000 European deaths, both through safer road engineering and through greater activity!
Professor Ekelund, who is based in Norway, is into cross-country skiing. However, he says all it would need to transform health, is brisk walking. Even a little exercise -a brisk 20-minute walk each day, for example – is enough to reduce the risk of an early death by as much as 30 percent!
What then could be simpler than walking? This was, after all, unless you were wealthy enough to have a horse, the primary means of land travel throughout history, until a mere few generations ago.
Recently there has been a renewed interest in walking as an effective way of improving health as well as helping deal with depression and obesity. Walking has consistently been reported as the most popular outdoor recreational activity in the United Kingdom. (Office for National Statistics, 2003).Scientists at the University of Lincoln have tried to look at the more nuanced benefits that long distance walking, especially the, so-called, greenexercise i.e. walking in nature, can bring to counter indoor dejection . Unsurprisingly their research shows that regular walking can elicit significant psychological benefits such as the reduced effects of life-stress, and promotes increased sense of wellbeing and personal growth.
Suppose you are already keeping slim and exercising, but you are just suffering the malady of modern life, like writer Cheryl Strayed
The recent release of Reese Witherspoon’s film of Cheryl Strayed’s best selling book, Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found explores the potential healing power of long distant walking. This is a touching, brilliant, poignant, redemptive memoire of Strayed’s epic 1,100 mile journey through the wilderness and into her self, after her mother’s early death and her imploding life, as she walked The American Pacific Crest Trail
Readers of these blogs will know that I have dabbled with longish walking, first part of the Camino de Santiago and, more recently, walked across the country on the incomparable Wainwright, Coast to Coast– route.
I really enjoyed the intensely honest book when it came out a few years ago and will be interested to see what Witherspoon has done turning it into a film. Strayed has done what all good writers aspire to in memoire, that is allowing us to engage with her particular story, and then see our own universal struggles reflected back to us in her unique, individual account.
With so few good parts written for women in Hollywood films it is great to see this strong, no nonsense, sometimes harrowing, self-transformative story, getting a wider exposure through film. As the father of three strong women, I am aware that young girls, growing up in our still distorted, often misogynistic culture, need to see more of such role models that Strayed and Witherspoon offer. The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and is produced by and stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl and Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby.
Such stories of female struggle in an often dangerous and predatory world highlight and affirm the important message that gender is no bar to taking on tough challenges, that no man, no relationship will make one whole. In a world where women can be imprisoned just for driving a car, as Strayed recently said on BBC radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, it is still, bizarrely, a radical notion to show that women are fully human and can do things, on and for, themselves.
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told”. Cheryl Strayed
As Lesley Garner put it, when also writing on this, in the idiosyncratic Sunday Telegraph recently, (January 4 2015), “walking is cheaper than psychiatry…and safer than psychotic drugs”.
Over thousands of years people have gone on pilgrimages.
They walked to get away from the restrictions of village life and /or to gain spiritual benefit. This was either on arrival at their chosen site of special reverence, or perhaps as much, from meeting others on the way (Canterbury Tales?) and change of view both outer and inner that the rigors of long distant walking gives one.
But crops have to be planted, children cared for, work commitments honoured, so for many of us the chance to just take off for an extended tramp comes rarely. Maybe we are not inclined, in the first place, to suffer the pains involved. Perhaps this is one reason for the evolution of labyrinths, those curious, ancient symbols that have captured our imagination for thousands of years. Here in those circular paths one can compress something of those long distant walks as my dear friend Helen outlined in her excellent book on the subject. Walking the inner path of the imagination as a meditation. But we dont even need a labyrith. We can access nature in a garden, on a balcony, in a park or if you are unable to get out and walk, just by looking out of a window.
Research has shown that patients with bedside windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, a day faster, needed significantly less pain medication and had fewer postsurgical complications than patients who instead saw a brick wall. So why wait until you have the misfortune to end up in such a dangerous place as a hospital? Taking one’s self out into nature, either walking or just looking, clearly is beneficial to us all. It would seem patently obvious to us all, and not need saying in any other culture but our own, over urban, digitalised, post modern one.
Walking in nature does two excellent things. It moves our bodies, so activating all those known and unknown physiological benfits, and it reconnects us back to our own place as part of nature, so reminding us, either consciously or unconsciously of the deep and unfathonable intelligence we are a part of. From which we come, to where we return, and where we never left. the Budhha himself attained enlightement under a tree, and later encouraged his followers to retreat to the forest to attain the stillness needed to see into ones own true nature.
So whether we walk a labyrinth in a quiet half an hour or the Mighty Pacific Crest Trail in a long, foot sore summer, we can all gain some insight with that invaluable mixture of solitude, exertion and nature. Walk on!