The Daily Constitutional

Donald NorfolkExercise is vital for our well-being and health, but it’s quickly overlooked if it ceases to be enjoyable. The ‘no pain, no gain’ concept is one of the silliest of all fitness maxims. It’s perfectly possible to keep fit without getting into a muck sweat. A brisk walk is every bit as good as a jog. This was the considered opinion of Dr George Sheehan, the American cardiologist who was one of the founding fathers of the jogging movement. In his best-selling book ‘Running and Being’ he encouraged people to ‘run for their lives’. Later he had the honesty to admit that he’d grossly exaggerated the benefits of distance running.  ‘I think jogging is completely unnecessary for a fitness programme’, he wrote. ‘A good brisk walk is equivalent to a jog anytime.’

There’s now ample medical evidence to demonstrate the benefits of taking a daily walk. Some while ago a long-term study of nearly nine thousand British civil servants revealed that men who walk for twenty or more minutes a day on their journey to and from work are fifty per cent less likely

to develop heart irregularities than those who travel by bus or car. Anyone who gets this regular daily work-out will improve their cardiovascular systems, expand their lungs, strengthen their muscles and build their bones. They’ll also burn up unwanted calories, for a half hour’s brisk walking consumes approximately three hundred calories, which is the equivalent of over a stone of fat per year. No wonder so many virile old-stagers attribute their health to the taking of a daily ‘constitutional’. A BBC reporter covering the royal tour of South Africa in 1947 was invited to accompany Field Marshall Jan Smuts on one of his early morning walks. He was shocked to find that the 76-year-old prime minister’s idea of a morning stroll was a brisk climb up the Table Mountain. He found it impossible to match his host’s pace, and arrived panting at the 3,500 foot summit ten minutes after Smuts, who greeted him with a wry smile: ‘Young man, at my age I haven’t as much time as you for loitering.’  That’s the way to keep young and healthy.

Walking is also a tonic for the mind. It’s often possible to shake of bouts of anxiety and depression by taking a brisk walk. This was the remedy practised by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had no doubt that ‘unhappy businessmen would increase their happiness more by walking six miles a day than by any other conceivable change of philosophy.’  Walking gets us away from our everyday chores and gives us time to think. Aristotle was so accustomed to developing his thoughts while on the march that he became known as the ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’. Likewise Kant, the nineteenth century German philosopher, who was so regular and punctual in taking his daily constitutional that his neighbours could set their clocks by his passage through the town. Walking brings the subconscious mind into play and is a proven aid to innovation. Many of the major scientific discoveries of recent times have been made when scientists have left their desks and gone for a recreational stroll. Godfrey Hounsfield, the Nobel prize-winning co-inventor of the EMI Scanner, admits that he gets many of his brightest ideas while rambling idly through the countryside. Poets also seem to be at their creative best when walking. Coleridge walked for ten miles every day; and Wordsworth is reckoned to have walked an estimated 185,000 miles during his lifetime, and at sixty was said to be as fit as he was at twenty.

Walking also provides a safe way of getting get rid of our pent up anger and frustration. A study of its use in one nursing home revealed that it resulted in a thirty percent decrease in aggression in severely demented patients. Worries can be left behind when we set out on a purposeful march. This strategy was known to the Greeks, who coined the expression ‘walking solves it’, a maxim better known today as ‘The Tramp’s Philosophy’. More recent research, carried out at the University of Illinois, has shown that when subjects with an average age of seventy-two walk for an hour three times a week they demonstrate an improvement in memory, attention, and decision making. And, as icing on the cake, it’s now known that we’re likely to increase our level of happiness if we take an outdoor walk. This was revealed in the course of a study in ‘hedonology’, conducted by workers at Princeton University, Ohio who asked a group of women to report the feelings they experienced when they took part in various everyday activities. This showed that they felt better when they were walking than when they were having sex. All these manifold benefits and they’re only a footstep away. Adopt the habit of taking a daily constitutional, and you’ll see why Jefferson, the third US President, claimed that walking was ‘the best possible exercise.’

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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