Walking: the wonder cure for heart and soul


Walking: the wonder cure for heart and soul

Putting one foot in front of the other has remarkable health benefits. ANNELIESE BURGESS walks you through nature's miracle cure for mind, body and spirit.


Sunday: 19,894 steps

Down the avenue of arizonicas and past the two giant Chinese elms. Then left through the gate and past the dipping pen towards the copse of sweet thorn trees clustered on the hill. The yellow pompoms smell of wild honey. The bees are hard at work.

I watch where I put my feet. Look out for rabbit and porcupine holes (and snakes). The meditative swing of my mother's walking stick. Dew seeps through my walking shoes. Step after step after step. Up the koppie, down into the narrow valley and up the other side. All along the boundary fence towards the furthest point of the farm's north camp. It's been almost an hour and a half. 

I rest on the wall of a water trough. Three clawed frogs circle the bubbles coming up from the spring. I drink tea from my little red flask and eat a peach. A paradise whydah floats above the grass, its long tail streaming in the thickening mid-morning heat. 

I walk to lose myself.

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Monday: 15,407 steps

The road from the farmhouse meanders along an ironstone ridge.

Two ducks paddle silently across the dam. The air smells of water and wild rosemary. I follow the cow track along the river. A scraggly giant kingfisher watches me from the weeping willow. The dogs dart between my legs. Goggins, the German Pointer pup, romps along like a newborn calf. A covey of quail finches scatter. A brown hare shoots out like a bullet out of a barrel. Goggins goes wild with joy.

The river is swollen from the previous night’s rain.

Step after step after step. Through the thick growth of the fallow river camp. Through dense tufts of turpentine and caterpillar and flatsedge grass. Past the cave where we used to play as children. Up onto plaat, and all along the spine of the mountain to the top from where I can see the town. I drink my tea on the rocks, between beds of grass aloes and bunches of oxtongue.

I walk to find myself.

Tuesday: 14,789 steps

All along the contours of the vlei camp, past the secretary bird’s nest to the beard of fir trees in the far corner. I have always loved the quiet murmuring of this little forest — and the smell of camphor and resin. I take my tea on the trunk of a fallen tree.

I walk to hear myself.

Wednesday: 13,890 steps

The backroad has a gentle incline. The air is woody, mossy, herbaceous. At the top, the vista opens onto the Drakensberg, shrouded in early morning mist. Three crowned cranes take off from the old lucerne land. My father used to say this flat camp, decked in shades of pink and bronze, was the best grazing on the farm. I follow the bakkie spoor to the back gate. Four kilometres of quiet splendour. Red grass and streaks of flowering yellow icholocholo. Pink ragwort and lacy white scabious. The more I pay attention, the more I see. Tiny wild violets. A fan of African hyacinths. A shock of orange doll's rose.

The silence is only pierced by the sounds of birds — finches, quails, larks and chats.

I walk to feel.

Nature’s wonder cure

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said that walking helps us “live the questions". The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau believed that “every walk is a sort of crusade" for returning to our senses. The writer Rebecca Solnit defines walking as “a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned". In his wonderful book, Walking, the Austrian playwright and poet Thomas Bernhard says: “There is nothing more revealing than to see a thinking person walking, just as there is nothing more revealing than to see a walking person thinking … Walking and thinking are in a perpetual relationship that is based on trust."

But walking is not only a balm for the soul and an incubator for creativity; putting one foot in front of the other protects us from physical illness in the most dramatic way.

A meta-analysis of studies on walking, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology last year, collated data from 17 long-term studies with more than 226,000 participants worldwide. The division between male and female participants, with an average age of 64, was fairly balanced. The study focused on daily step counts and their correlation with overall mortality risk (the likelihood of death from any cause) and other variables.

The findings suggest that taking 3,867 steps each day is sufficient to decrease overall mortality risk. Roughly 2,300 steps a day were shown to reduce the risk of dying from heart disease. These advantages were consistent for men and women, irrespective of where they lived.

For every 1,000 steps added, there was a 15% reduction in all-cause mortality, while 500-step increments dropped cardiovascular mortality risk by 7%. It was the first study to examine the effects of walking up to 20,000 steps a day and the unsurprising verdict was “the more, the better”.

The research identified positive outcomes across all age groups. However, the health advantages were particularly noticeable among under-60s, underscoring the significant impact that initiating a walking regimen at an early stage can have on overall wellbeing.

Walking is nature's wonder cure. 

Other studies have shown that regular walking improves cognition, decreases anxiety symptoms and improves sleep quality.

What is the magic number of steps?

You might be familiar with the notion that 10,000 steps is the “magic number" for recommended daily steps. Still, this widely promoted benchmark may not be as precise as initially believed.

The concept of achieving 10,000 steps originated in Japan during the 1960s and was not grounded in scientific evidence but devised to market the first pedometer.

Last year, researchers from the University of Granada in Spain conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of data from 12 international studies with more than 110,000 participants. They published their findings in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

This study found that if we focus on the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, most of the benefits are seen at around 7,000 steps, and with 8,000 steps we significantly reduce the overall risk of premature death.

Given the average length of a human stride (76cm for men and 67cm for women), taking 8,000 steps is equivalent to walking about 6.4km daily.

The lead author of the study, Francisco Ortega, says: “There is no excessive number of steps that have been proven to be harmful to health, but reaching 7,000-9,000 steps daily is a sensible health goal for most people."

♦ VWB ♦

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