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Walking Is Medicine: Why Long Walks Will Change Your Life

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Why walking is underrated as a creative exercise, and how it cures anxiety

I am back home for Christmas, and yesterday, Boxing Day, I walked, in the rain, from my village and down into the valley, and then upwards on the other side and into the woodlands. This is my childhood village — a village called, ‘Shelley’ — in the West Riding of Yorkshire where one woodland stands above, and another at the bottom of the valley. On either side of the village are farmlands which spread out over rolling hills as far as one can see; a patchwork of green fields bordered by hedgerows and drystone walls which cut across the landscape in every direction, with a scattering of wildflowers and farm animals, mostly cows or sheep, and an occasional ancient farmhouse and barn dotted somewhere in the picture, lived in and beloved by honest, hard-working farming folk.

The late sun spilled light through the trees and onto the footpath, and every so often a grey squirrel would scurry across my path and ascend the nearest tree until out of sight. Whenever you walk into the woods it always feels as if you have entered a sanctuary; everything that you think matters does not seem to matter all that much when you are under the shelter of the trees. Trees in particular are mysterious to me; they are like gods or mystics, infinitely wiser than humans, all-knowing, all-seeing, and we can only admire them from below. I could walk anywhere; I could travel along the roads, over the green fields, across the towns and cities — but I always choose the woodlands; because in the woods I walk amongst my ancestors, and I am home. Even in childhood the woods were the place where I felt closest to nature and its awe-inspiring workings.

I most enjoy those woodlands which are unkempt, which have fallen trees and branches on the ground, and brushes and brambles in sprawl, and have no clear footpath, so that you have to find your own way through the deadly labyrinth of nettles, thorns, spines, and prickles. The wild woodlands are a fascinating reminder of what nature was like before humanity: a tangled, prickly, and venomous darkness, often hostile and sinister, but, at the same time, mysteriously beautiful. The wildest things are the most alive, and finding yourself amid the wilderness in an age when man has subdued every other part of life is refreshing.

After some time of walking through the woodlands along the narrow path, I came across a lonely stream, which flowed through the heart of the woodlands and down the valley. A father watched over his young daughter, a happy, blonde-haired girl, as she played with twigs and sticks and hopped across the stones that sat on the water. I smiled to the father, lunged over the water and went onwards through the trees. Some distance later, the trees stopped before a train track, which stretched across into the distance in a perfect straight line, headed in both directions for the industrial cities of Yorkshire. I re-entered the woodlands and was absorbed once again by the trees, the leaves, the sprays of sunlight, the crawling insects, the wet mud — the simple and forgotten things — and carried on towards the village.

Eventually, after about an hour and a half of walking, the footpath ended near the cricket pitch at the top of the hill in a village called ‘Shepley’ — the name deriving from the Old English sceap (‘sheep’) and leah (‘clearing’), thus meaning ‘a clearing or meadow where sheep are kept’. And once you get to this point you have a view of the entire landscape, including a full scope of my village on the hillside opposite. Beyond the village, you can see yet more farmlands and woodlands, the Victorian village church, Emmanuel Church, and in the far distance, Emley Moor Tower, which pierces through the sky and watches over every village southeast of Huddersfield.

Over the years I must have walked this same route a thousand times, and yet I never tired of its charms; if one is attentive enough, every walk is an opportunity to see new sights and to hear new sounds. On many occasions, I walked off the track and ended up in some unfamiliar landscape that I never expected to see, nor could have imagined. For the most part, West Yorkshire is not very diverse in its landscape; mostly green fields and green hills that seemingly stretch on and on forever. But on my local walks I am an explorer, a pioneer, I am involved in the landscapes, and I notice the wonderful capabilities of the landscape to bend and fold over short distances, and I learn the shapes and curves of different trees and plants and how they change throughout each season. In my walks I am in a constant, slow-burning rapture.

Usually I do not have any definite plan when I walk, nothing to achieve; the beauty is in the walking, in the journey itself. I depend on instinct, and walk interminably, one foot in front of the other, breathing in the cold air, marvelling at the stature of the oak trees, nodding and greeting the dog walkers who pass me by. And then, quite suddenly, ideas arrive, stories are imagined, meaning and purpose is restored. Pages and pages, revelation after revelation; beautiful words, long sentences, poetry and rhyme, answers to dreaded questions — these all come in flashing moments when you are absorbed in the landscape, in the eternity of the natural world. It always takes me by surprise, and I often regret not having a notepad to write my thoughts down; and I just have to hope that I will remember everything when I get back home.

In nature you leave yourself behind, you are nobody in the woods. When faced with a particular difficulty I find it is always healthier just to get out of the house and go for a walk, rather than trying to force the answer. For in the repetition of walking you empty yourself out, you free yourself from opinion and expectation, and embody once again man’s innate character; and in this state of emptiness your mind begins to clear — and then the gods descend to you and fill in the void with the knowledge and guidance that you were impatient for. It is freedom of movement which stimulates the mind and brings forth divine revelations and wisdom. A free body is a free mind; which is why, I suppose, the powers that be prefer that we sit in offices and cubicles day and night, so that we are made forever stupid and loyal customers.

Indeed, like everyone else, I have days which require that I sit inside the office or the library all day and work until the end; and on these days it always feels as if there is a small stove slowly burning in my stomach, a hollow pain, and it gets fierier the longer the day goes on and the longer I sit and stifle my vitality. If the evening comes and I have not walked far at all, then at some point this fire cannot be contained, and it becomes impossible to remain sitting still, because I get so tense and anxious that I cannot concentrate properly on even the simplest of tasks. The mind is exhausted, but the body’s energy is idle and unsatisfied; and if this energy does not find release through physical exertion, then it seeps into the mind and transforms into worries, doubts, fears — what’s more, it is difficult to sleep, because the untapped lifeforce whirls and spins around the mind, desperately trying to express itself, keeping me awake. The lifeforce that should be used to find an outlet through the physical exertion gets turned back on the nervous system and the brain and slowly destroys them.

I take long walks, because I have a body, and if I do not use my body then I become bad-tempered and apathetic. Those who solely concentrate on their intellect, and who leave the body behind, tend to be rigid, stern characters, and unhealthy. There seems to be, as far as I can tell, a primal drive towards life which is in every man, and which finds its easiest expression in the act of walking; in the act of moving forward through the world and marveling at the beauty of the natural world. In my experience all anxious and depressive feelings seem to dissipate when walking through nature. And if you walk far enough you eventually achieve a state of joy, a quiet, inner happiness, and you are relieved, as you have escaped from the walls, the squares, from the eternity of sitting, of stagnation; and now you are moving over the landscape, over the hills and far away, fighting against gravity, breathing fresh air, with a pulsing heart and an appetite for flowers and sunlight — you are free in search for the springs of life. A long walk is a rebirth in consciousness; one never returns quite the same, and is always better off for it.

Thank you, Harry J. Stead

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