My dear, and long departed American friend Dr George Sheehan,was first and foremost a runner, but he was also a great advocate of walking.
When he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, George furiously fought the disease with his body’s every fibre; and he documented his extraordinary battle in a series of essays he wrote up until his death in 1993.
The result was a book Going the Distance, a work of surpassing power and honesty, a book that exemplifies his impact on the many millions around the world who he inspired.
George was a regular visitor to Ireland, especially around Dublin Marathon time in October. He loved to walk and run in Trinity College and in Djouce Woods in Wicklow and he left us with many nuggets of inspiration through his writings. George’s insightful, thoughtful advice and commentary – often drawn from such great philosophers as Plato, Nietzsche, Emerson and William James- pointed the way toward a physiologically and spiritually fuller life.
When he wrote about happiness, George said: “I am not adept at happiness. I cannot produce it on demand, but by following the advice of Emerson, Campbell and others I can put myself in situations where happiness is more likely to occur. What strikes me is how easy this is for children and how outrageously difficult it is for adults. This childhood capacity seems to return as one ages. If you would be happy, look at the old and the young.”
George goes on to quote Bertrand Russell: “Man is an animal and his happiness depends on his physiology more than he likes to think.”
Russell thought that the trained body was important. “Unhappy business men, he stated, “would increase their happiness more by walking six miles every day than by any conceivable change in philosophy.”
Walking six miles a day is likely to change one’s philosophy as well. Thousands of walkers – and runners, swimmers and cyclists – will attest to a new sense of life’s meaning arrived at during their physical activity, The mind is in motion as well as the body.
Betrand Russell thought it was impossible to be happy without activity – of both mind and body. “When things are bad,” observed Russell, “what a person needs is not a new philosophy but a new regimen – a different diet, or more exercise.” That advice may seem simplistic but I think that many thousands of people who have discovered the benefits of walking for wellness will fully understand what Russell is saying.
George Sheehan loved to walk, run and write. He was 45 and living a sedentary life when he said he ‘woke up’, pulled the emergency cord and started to walk and run again.
George wrote: “Often we do not recognize the lack of play in our lives. We are unaware of the effects it would have on all the functions of our personality. We live without the forces available to us in every aspect of our being. We operate without this force which would transform our day- to- day living.
“The first influence of play is on our bodies. It brings with it exercise. Medicine and surgery attack disease but they do not cover health. This resides in the fully functioning body, be it sick or well. Health is the best we can be. Health is getting the most out of the body we were born with. The playful use of exercise such as walking is what brings this about.”
“A walk is one of the secrets of dodging old age,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the fight against ageing, mental fitness is as important as physical fitness. Mental fitness gets you up and going: mental fitness gives you a new attitude – a new attitude to life; mental fitness gives you the drive and energy to make plans for a healthy future.
By walking regularly you cut your rate of physical decline by half. ‘Use it or lose it’ is the adage. In addition to improving cardiovascular health, walking helps with back pain, arthritis, osteoporosis, varicose veins, reducing cholesterol and other medical problems where inactivity is a factor.
Here are a few interesting research findings about walking:
1 Walking counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes. Havard researchers looked at 32 obesity-promoting genes in over 12,000 people to determine how much those genes actually contribute to body weight. They discovered that, among the study participants who walked briskly for about an hour a day, the effects of those were cut in half.
2 Walking boosts immune function. Walking can help protect you during cold and flu season. A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least five days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was for a shorter duration and their symptoms were milder.
3 Walking reduces the risk of developing breast cancer. Researchers already know that any physical activity blunts the risk of breast cancer, But an American Cancer Society study that zeroed in on walking found that women who walked seven or more hours a week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer than those who walked three hours or fewer per week. Walking provided this protection even for the women with breast cancer risk factors such as being overweight or using supplementary hormones.
4 Walking eases joint pain. Several studies found that walking reduces arthritis-related pain, and that walking five or six miles a week can even prevent arthritis from forming in the first place.
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