Walking through the ages: Great thinkers have promoted getting healthier one step at a time

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FEATURE — Babies get lots of attention when they take their first steps, which are celebrated with applause, cheers and Facebook posts.

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The skill of walking is an important one, and humans have employed it out of instinct and necessity throughout history to get from one point to another, whether it’s across the room or across a continent. We walk around without a second thought – it’s automatic – but when is the last time you walked “on purpose”?

Walking for good health is currently highly recommended; it’s low impact, free and beneficial for the heart, lungs, joints and mind. You’re exposed to nature, fresh air and sunshine. Depression and anxiety are reduced, healthy weight is achieved and maintained and sleep is improved. Done with family, friends and pets, walking can even strengthen relationships.

Fitness guru Jack LaLanne said, “Walking is a big part of my life. If you walk vigorously, it’s just as good for you as running.”

Author Rebecca Solnit adds, “Walking articulates both physical and mental freedom.”

The virtues of walking have been known since ancient times. Hippocrates proclaimed, “Walking is man’s best medicine.“ Diogenes coined the Latin phrase “solvitur ambulando” – “it is solved by walking.” A Bulgarian proverb reads, “From walking, something; from sitting, nothing.” It turns out sitting is worse than nothing; it’s actually linked to early death, especially for those with sitting jobs.

Thomas Jefferson, who took daily long walks throughout his life, was concerned that “the Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man. But I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained by the use of this animal” (replace “horse” with “motor vehicle” for our day). Jefferson also wrote, “I repeat my advice to take a great deal of exercise, and on foot. Health is the first requisite after morality.”

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Many great authors, artists, musicians and thinkers made walking part of their routines. Mason Curry, in his book “Daily Ritual,” found many examples in his research. Beethoven took two-hour-long vigorous walks with pencil and music paper stuffed in his pocket in case inspiration struck. Sigmund Freud took daily one-hour walks around Vienna at “terrific speed.”

John Milton spent up to four hours a day walking up and down his garden. Jane Austen took part in frequent walks with company, a custom often portrayed in her novels. Victor Hugo chose the beach for his daily two-hour walks. 

For years, Charles Dickens had three-hour walks through London or the countryside; Charles Darwin beat Dickens by half an hour in his schedule. Tchaikovsky walked for 30 minutes in the morning, then two hours later in the day. Louisa May Alcott walked with her family, who were ahead of their time in advocating healthy lifestyles.

Who knows what you will contribute to the world? Why not follow in the footsteps of the great minds of the past and add a daily walk to your schedule? Jefferson encourages, “No one will know till he (or she) tries how easily the habit of walking is acquired.”

How easy? Just follow the advice of this Chinese proverb: “One step at a time is good walking.”

Written by DAVID HEATON, Southwest Utah Public Health Department Public Information Officer.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of HEALTH Magazine.

Copyright © Southwest Utah Public Health Foundation, all rights reserved.

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