Commentary: Wonders of walking benefit both the soles and the soul
PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. — Walking is the real miracle drug. Scientists have long connected systematic exercise to better health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular walkers “live longer and have a lower risk for heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, depression and some cancers.”
A recent New York Times headline proclaimed, “To Age Well, Walk.” The story reported on a massive new study that concluded: “Regular exercise, including walking, significantly reduces the chance that a frail older person will become physically disabled.”
This is certainly good news for those of us whose age at our last birthday started with a 7. But the benefits of walking go beyond lower cholesterol and higher energy.
Walking is about souls as well as soles. It raises your awareness as well as your heart rate. It returns you to a ground-level view of the world. It reveals small moments of beauty and joy — stones and flowers, babies and birds — that can’t be appreciated or even noticed through a car window.
Here on Pawleys Island, where we’ve spent our vacations for more than 35 years, our evening walks on the beach are often the best part of the day.
Overhead fly formations of pelicans, fondly known as the Pawleys Island Air Force, who patrol the beach with the gliding grace of ballet dancers. One memorable evening, just as the setting sun was streaking the sky purple and pink, dozens of these compelling creatures hovered over a school of baitfish just offshore and plunged repeatedly into the sea, foraging for dinner. That scene happened once, in real time. Not in a text or a tweet or a YouTube video. And you had to be walking on the beach to see it.
Our children were 9 and 7 when we first visited this island, and we dreamed for years of grandchildren digging the same sand, riding the same waves, seeing the same sunsets. The dream came true. Now the younger generation is entering teen-hood like brightly colored birds on long legs — still a bit awkward on land, but getting ready to fly away. Any day now.
Our chocolate Labrador Ella loves the beach as much as we do, and probably more. She scampers after gulls and sandpipers, and while she hasn’t caught one yet, her mad dashes through the surf, exercises in pure heedless happiness, are exhilarating to behold.
Do you walk your dog or does your dog walk you? Whatever the answer to that ancient question, four-legged strollers connect you to two-legged ones. Dogs encourage pats and praise, comments and conversations. They solidify a sense of community with folks you’d never meet except on foot.
American suburbs are not designed to foster that communal spirit. We drive past our neighbors’ homes, park in our own driveways, seldom linger in public spaces. Back home, outside of Washington, evening strolls are about the only way to break through that isolation.
Europe has a very different tradition. We lived in Greece for four years, and the daily volta, as it’s called, was an essential element of the culture. The entire village would turn out at the end of the day, parading through the town square or along the harborside.
In Spain the tradition is called the paseo, in Italian the passeggiata, but it’s all the same.
Travel writer Dianne Hales on be comingitalian.com talks about the ritual as a “cultural performance” that connects people to friends and neighbors, to past events and future spouses.
We saw this last summer in the Tuscan winemaking town of Montepulciano. One evening, after most of the tourists had left, the locals gathered in the broad square in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, built in the early 17th century.
Some strolled. And chatted. Others sat on the church steps. And chatted. How many times have these same people gathered here? And their parents? And grandparents? And countless generations before that?
Not only does walking fortify personal connection, it reveals physical beauty. Only on foot can you fully appreciate the curve of a stone archway, the color of a marble wall, the delicacy of a hanging geranium spilling out of a window box, the sudden view of a greening valley framed by a narrow alley.
During our next beach walk, we probably won’t see any 17th-century cathedrals. But we will see dogs chasing gulls. Babies splashing the surf. Pelicans guarding the coast.
We will raise our heartbeats, and renew our ties to this community. One step at a time.