Stepping Out

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By Mark Lundegren

I want you to think about stepping out with me.

I don’t mean stepping out for a night on the town and big city lights. I mean stepping outdoors, out from between walls that have me and maybe you a little too hemmed in, and maybe more than we both realize.

What I mean is stepping out into the world, stepping out to experience firsthand what is around us, and what is new and fresh right now. I mean stepping out quite literally. I mean taking a good long walk.

Sure, I know you know about walking. You likely have been at it since you were barely more than a baby, and you even may walk quite often already. But I want to be sure you know everything you need to know about walking. One thing you may not know is that there is walking and then, well, there is walking.

Almost all walking is of course healthy. It is our most natural human means of physical and emotional renewal, and how we achieved environmental and resource renewal in wild nature. All or most walking is a certain path to personal discovery and new experiences, if we are naturally attentive as we walk, and take time to observe what we walk by and through.

In many ways, though, walking and walks can be very different – at different times and in different settings. Walks can vary in purpose and familiarity, just as they can vary in duration and intensity. To better understand the forms that walking can take, I’d like to spend a few minutes showing you how our can walks vary, the different types of walks that are available to us, and how each type works to enhance our health and well-being in different ways.

To do this, and to simplify our discussion, I want to propose the idea that there are three basic forms of walks and will explain what is different about each form. My goal in this is to make you think differently and more deeply about the prospect of walking, to encourage more walks and help you get more out of the walks you take, and even to change how, where, and why you walk.

Step One: The Daily Walk

HumanaNatura members and others familiar with our natural health program know that walking is inevitably near the center of any natural health program. After all, walking is our most basic and natural form of human movement, one that was essential to lifelong health and well-being in our long life in wild nature, just as it remains so today.

Daily walks are the first level of walking and are just that, the everyday walks we take for exercise, relaxation, or simply to run errands and get things done. Daily walks are often an hour or so in duration, and usually last at least twenty minutes. Daily walks typically cover familiar terrain and take us to and through familiar surroundings. As such, daily walks often provide a familiar or similar experience. Daily walks thus can be regular and comforting but still quite positive walks, like a close friend who reliably energizes us and helps us whenever we spend time together.

As I mentioned, daily walks are essential to our health and a key part of the HumanaNatura natural health program. They give us needed exercise, encourage physical and emotional well-being, and provide a direct experience and renewed connection with the natural world. The only shortcoming of daily walks, if there is a shortcoming, is their daily-ness. Daily walks are healthy for sure, but as part of our routine, they often are routine. They take us only so far, both literally and figuratively. They are usually less than we care capable of and need for true natural health and personal vitality.

A way of thinking about short daily walks is that they are the beginnings of journeys, but usually are not full journeys themselves. They are stopped before they can proceed to become true wanderings of the self and true episodes of discovery. There are exceptions to this of course – there are truly exceptional days and daily walks, and daily walks can be consciously strung together and made into an insightful exploration of a particular time and place.

Because of the tendency of daily walks to become routine and limiting, it is essential to ensure both attentiveness and variation as part of all daily walking, as much as focusing on the duration and intensity of our walks. Extra awareness and variety (which nature helps with on its own) in our daily walks helps us get the most out of this form of walking.

Together, they make short walks as health-promoting, renewing, and satisfying as they can be.

Step Two: The Day Walk

A level up from the daily walk is what I will call the day walk, but I don’t mean this precisely. Let me describe a day walk as a bigger type of walk than a daily walk, ranging from a few hours to an entire day of walking.

This range of course includes breaks we may take and diversions we may make or meet amidst the more extended and open format of a day walk. Such breaks are not just physically necessary in this form of walking, but an essential part of what day walks are about. Day walks are excursions into the world and intentional pursuits of new experiences and perspective, as much as they are intermediate acts of natural conditioning and practices in the ancient human art of sustained walking.

To be done comfortably, day walks require a higher level of physical fitness and personal awareness than daily walking, so daily walking is rightly seen as a preamble, if you will pardon my unintentional pun, to the more committed form of walking that day walks are.

While day walks are more challenging, they in turn often give us back much more too, and both physically and emotionally as I suggested before. Day walks provide substantial new increases in our physical fitness and stamina, especially when done over varied and challenging terrain. But most day walks offer much more than this.

Day walks are opportunities for us to pause and observe life and our lives, amidst our lives, and this is why they normally involve stops and starts along their routes. Day walks are windows into the world, sometimes startling ones, which often offer new and unexpected perspectives on our surroundings and ourselves.

Day walks can even be small journeys in themselves. Just as you can’t rush a day or a journey, you really can’t rush a good day walk. You have to take the walk and the time walking as they come, one step and one breath at a time, and live on the walk’s terms and with the day’s conditions.

As potential journeys, day walks often ask us to give them extra time so that they may be journeys, that we give them our spirit and allow them to unfold in their own measure. Sometimes, we must let the day walk take us, and accept that it is no longer us that is takes the walk.

Allowing a day walk to carry or journey us into the world, even if only for part of a day, may naturally involve being out in changing weather. A day walk might lead us to unfamiliar places or take us though unfamiliar surroundings. And it likely will involve encountering unexpected things, of all sorts. For these reasons, day walks always involve being well-prepared for all three of these things – weather, new places, and unexpected encounters.

I have items I always bring on my day walks: a hat, a weatherproof jacket, an extra layer of clothing, money, a phone, a map if I do not know the area, and food and water if they might not be available on the walk. I often bring one or more friends, especially if the walk is in a truly unfamiliar or out of the way place. And I at all times bring good sense, and never intentionally walk where there are known dangers or hazards.

Day walks can be remarkably special times and very often involve extraordinary personal experiences, even when they occur in places we think we know well. Because of the probability of unexpected events and new perspectives on a day walk, these walks may take us to a place where we get in touch with what I will call our journeying self.

Our journeying self is a part or aspect of us that every experienced traveler knows, and often in proportion to the depth and richness of one’s life and travels. Our journeying self is a deeper, less constrained, and more personal side of us. It is an expression of us that is less distracted by and even less interested in our daily routines and personal commitments. Our journeying self is certainly a more central part of us, the self of our heart and conscience, and the person and spirit at the heart of all thoughts of journey and discovery.

This deeper and more heartfelt side of us is of course always present within us, always there in our lives, but often we do not notice it in daily living, and even in daily walking. Our journeying self is that side of us that comes to us and through us in intimate conversation, in moments of reflection and during attentive living, when we are relaxed and observant, and especially when we are journeying and away from routines and demands we and others place on us.

Put another way, our journeying self is the inside of us, where conscious acts of personal wisdom and kindness come and are felt in others. It is the voice that compels us to live in new ways and walk or run to new places, even when it is work to change and when exploring seemingly keeps us from commitments that feel more pressing to the outside of us.

As we discover our natural health, our journeying self calls to us to live more actively and spiritedly in the world, and to move and engage more deeply in life – always when it would be easier to remain close to home and in our routines, between familiar walls and away from unexplored paths, and in lower states of health and vitality than we are capable.

But step out we must, if we are to be naturally healthy, and fully alive and fully human. Our journeying self knows this and our health knows this, and we know this – inside.

We know we must explore and discover, to be true to ourselves and to be fully ourselves.

Step Three: The Extended Walk

Some days, we do not want our day walks to end. We perhaps want or need to rest for a time, but then want to continue our walking for another day or more.

This natural and healthy human impulse to sustain and deepen our walks, waiting for us in an exploration of day walking, brings us to the third and ultimate type of walk, the extended walk, which I will define simply as a walk lasting at least two days but often for several days or longer.

As you might imagine or know already, while extended walks are simply defined, they are anything but simple in practice. Extended walks, in fact, are among the richest, most heartfelt, and liberating experiences available to us as human beings. They are the full expression and realization of our natural need and ability to walk, to journey and be our true journeying selves, to be on the open land and immersed and at peace in the astonishing natural world.

Extended walks lasting several days are a change, not just in our surroundings, but in the way we live a day and how we relate to others and the living world. In truth, we often never fully return from extended walking and true journeys of the spirit they can be – often, we remain in them and they in us for our lives.

Walks of several days or more are of course re-tracings of our ancient human past and long life in nature, before fixed civilization, but they are equally explorations of our present and often surveys of our future. Extended walks are times intentionally apart from or only moving through familiar and settled human life. They are an immersion in an older time of human life and now, for modern people, perhaps in a newer time too.

Extended walks reliably offer new perspectives on and new alternatives to our regular life. They bring us to new and often more natural ideas about the way we live and might live. They show us how we might live more consciously and spiritually with the earth, and more in the cadence and tempo of a long walk. For me, we are smaller and less grounded as people when we do not know the natural openness of an extended walk, and the joy and health waiting for us in this ancient human pattern of movement on the land.

But how many of us have taken this third type of walk, an extended walk measured in days or weeks? There are a many groups around the world that organize such walks and many people who share an interest in this, so there is really no reason not to take at least one long walk yourself, and to go with friends, and to go soon.

If you have been on an extended walk, with a group or on your own, you know this deepest form of walking is more than simply stepping out. In many ways, extended walks are more like stepping in – stepping into the greater world around us, stepping into new company and relationships, and stepping into ourselves and much more deeply than we might imagine is possible.

Extended walks are inevitably and inexorably a re-connection to the natural world and our natural health, and to our humanity and individuality within the world.  Extended walks are movements across landscapes and intentional journeys through space and time. They are movements over undulating country, movements along and then over horizons, movements apart from modern life and into natural life.  Extended walks place us between the constant sweep of land and sky that is our Earth, and between the extremes of life that is our human condition on Earth today.

Whether alone or with others, extended walks call on us to be self-reliant and yet interdependent with and part of all that is around us – combining rhythm and improvisation in our walking and stopping, in our finding food and shelter, and in our deciding what to bring and what to leave behind – just as nature asks this of us in our daily lives, if we listen carefully and are to live fully.

Stepping Out Today

A good friend of mine, a member of the HumanaNatura community, earns part of his living leading extended walks of many days across Japan. He has found a way to make long walks a part of his life and future, as we all can. As I write this, he is three days out on the first of two spring walks from the city of Kyoto into the scenic Kiso Valley in central Honshu, along the old, famous, and now resurrected Nakesendo Way that ends near Tokyo.

I have made this two-week journey with Fusao before and today, as I write to you, I journey with him again in spirit. The walk from Kyoto into Kiso, the home of the poet Basho, is a splendid journey of many days and many landscapes. It is a journey into oneself and our journeying self, as much as it is a journey into the Japanese countryside and mountains, with its unique past and present. Like other extended walks, it is a passage into our common past as people and a reminder of our modern possibility of natural renewal and new life with, and not apart from, nature.

Wherever you are today, and whenever today is as you read or hear this, I want to encourage you to do some stepping out of your own, as I am literally about to now. I will wish you health and good walking, whether your next walk is of the daily, day, or extended variety.

As your walking reaches new levels and calls you beyond a routine of daily walking, then I will wish you good journeying instead. And with this wish, I hope to help you find the peace and hopefulness, the feelings of both freedom and rootedness, and the sense of spirit and humanity that journeys of the heart and Earth bring to us.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage modern natural life & health!

Revisiting The Sun

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By Mark Lundegren

In what has been a long, sometimes passionate, and decidedly behavior-changing debate about the risks and benefits of sun exposure, the pendulum has now begun to swing back once again toward the sun, away from life in the shade.  This time, however, the change may be a more lasting one, with the potential for a stable and far more informed scientific consensus about the importance and optimal needed amount of sun exposure.

As the dust, or rather the data, begins to settle in this debate, extending back centuries, our once revered and now frequently reviled sun is now far more likely to come out on top than it was just a few years ago.  This may not be surprising to some of us, who have wondered quietly how we evolved beneath the sun if we were not able to withstand its rays – and even what parts of our human physiology might be dependent on regular doses of sunlight.

In case you have been living deep in the jungle or beneath a rock, the dominant view has been and still is that sun exposure is bad, a carcinogen, especially during the midday hours and if you are fair-skinned.  If you have been following this accepted thinking, you may well have been living in a shaded jungle, or beneath or along the shadows of rocks and roofs.  In the least, you probably have steered your outdoor experience to early and late in the day, and have ventured out at midday only with a film of sunscreen applied to your exposed skin.

In either case, it is definitely now time to come out of the shadows you may have been living in.  While no one is likely to advocate prolonged sun exposure anytime soon, or allowing sunburns ever, it is time for us all to reconsider our views and even to begin to revisit the sun above us once again, firsthand and with our skin.

The Vitamin D Connection

What has caused this new and perhaps permanent turn in the debate about sun exposure is new research into the roles and effects of Vitamin D.  Vitamin D is really more of a pre-hormone than other vitamins, in that it fosters natural human steroid production, an essential component of our human physiology and health.

It has been known for some time that sunlight exposure was crucial to our natural production of Vitamin D, and that this production was in turn important to the health of our skeletal and nervous systems in particular, and to cellular metabolism in general.  More recent research has revealed the significant problems we can have in getting and keeping adequate Vitamin D in our system for our health in all these areas, especially if we are not in strong sunlight frequently enough, if we are not light-skinned, or if we are overweight. 

Dietary sources of Vitamin D come primarily from oily fishes like salmon, which have many other health benefits and are an essential part of a natural human diet.  But these dietary sources provide only small amounts of Vitamin D in comparison to the amount that can be produced though sun exposure, which is thus likely to be essential to ensuring adequate Vitamin D and our long-term health.

There are of course Vitamin D supplements and fortified foods, but these are generally problematic from several standpoints: 1) they are often provided in unnatural, health-reducing foods like calf’s milk, 2) they usually contain Vitamin D2 instead of the more desirable Vitamin D3, 3) they often are provided along with the canceling effect of a vitamin A supplement, 4) they may not reliably increase circulating Vitamin D in a way comparable to sunlight exposure, and 5) there is a risk of toxicity with high oral Vitamin D doses aiming to mimic the effects of sunlight exposure (sunlight-produced Vitamin D does not have this toxicity risk). 

Like dietary supplements in general, Vitamin D supplements are usually not a good substitute for real life, whether the subject is eating natural foods or getting natural sun exposure.  It is worth noting that HumanaNatura does not advocate supplementation of any kind for people on our natural diet plan, except on the advice of a physician.  A natural diet, informed by modern health science, is still by far the best way to obtain the optimum amounts and types of the many nutrients we need to ensure our health (nature’s billion-year head start on the supplement industry is indeed a formidable one).

Beyond the limited sources of Vitamin D in our natural diet and the various problems of supplementation, there is an added issue for people who are dark-skinned.  Research has shown that the impact of sunlight on Vitamin D production in dark-skinned people is much less than their lighter-skinned brethren.  Lighter-skinned people can get a significant Vitamin D boost in just 15-20 minutes outdoors in bright sunlight (on the order of 10,000 units of Vitamin D – a very healthy daily dose), reflecting an evolutionary adaptation favoring lighter colored skin in the upper latitudes (where there is often less and less strong sunlight with which to make Vitamin D). 

The response to sunlight is very different for darker-skinned people, who produce far less Vitamin D in strong sunlight and almost none in weak sunlight (even in midday sun in winter in upper latitudes).  This is an important finding for many of us.  When we talk about lighter-skinned people being adapted for weaker sunlight, it is a bit euphemism.  After all, what we really mean that this attribute has been naturally selected.  In earlier life in upper latitudes, slightly lighter-skin people maintained healthier physiologies than darker-skinned people, and had lower death and higher fertility rates, leading to a selection of lighter skin color over time.  For these reasons, darker-skinned people are health-disadvantaged in low sunlight conditions.  We’ll come back to this topic in a minute, including Vitamin D’s likely role in driving selection for lighter skin and the implications of this for natural health today.

Finally, to conclude our survey of the problems we may face in maintaining adequate circulating Vitamin D, we must also mention that overweight people have added problems with Vitamin D too.  Vitamin D is a fat-soluble compound and can build up in our fat cells, which is why toxicity from oral or dietary supplementation is an issue with Vitamin D.  It is also why overweight people can have much lower levels of free Vitamin D than average weight people, even with a comparable diet – Vitamin D generally gravitates to and stays in the fat cells of overweight people, instead of circulating more freely in our body.

The Sun & Cancer

As important as these findings are, there is still more to consider about the sun.  In fact, what is really new in the debate about sun exposure is recent research on the effects of high levels of Vitamin D in actually reducing, not increasing, cancer incidence and mortality (and thereby pointing to the likely mechanism for the natural selection of lighter skin complexions in upper latitudes). 

There are a growing number of studies supporting this linkage of Vitamin D and lower cancer mortality, most notably comprehensive research published in 2005 by Edward Giovannucci of Harvard University.  These results are still preliminary, but they are significant and will likely force a significant and permanent rethinking of sun exposure over the next few years. 

Ultimately, long-term objective studies will be required to settle the science of sun exposure, which will take time.  In the meantime, as I said before, the pendulum has begun to swing back toward the sun, and now with new and decidedly added momentum.

Here is a synopsis of what we now know about sun exposure today: 

  • The sun can cause skin cancer, including deadly melanomas, particularly in very light-skinned people who allow themselves to burn frequently over the course of their lives.  It is worth noting that non-melanomic skin cancers are usually treatable and unlikely to be fatal in developed countries.  Mortality from skin cancer appears to be especially linked to frequent sunburns when we are young.
  • Moderate sun exposure can dramatically increase circulating Vitamin D in light-skinned, non-obese people.  Darker-skinned people need much more sun to achieve high circulating Vitamin D levels.  Other sources of Vitamin D (both foods and supplements) provide much lower and probably inadequate levels of circulating Vitamin D as discussed above.
  • People with high levels of circulating Vitamin D appear significantly less likely to die of cancer (a variety of cancers) than people with low levels of circulating Vitamin D.  Initial estimates by Giovannucci are that high, sun-induced Vitamin D counts prevent 30 deaths for each death from skin cancer linked to sun exposure.  This is a remarkable ratio if it holds true in further research, one that will drive the re-thinking of a number of current public health policies.
  • Vitamin D is essential to long-term cellular health.  It appears to prevent the initial formation of cancerous cells, and more importantly, to significantly reduce the reproduction and spread of cancerous cells if they do emerge.  Recent studies point to much lower mortality rates from lymphoma and cancers of the prostate, lungs, colon, and even the skin, when high levels of Vitamin D are maintained through sun exposure.
  • In addition to cancer prevention,Vitamin D is essential to skeletal and bone health, and perhaps even more important than calcium intake in preventing many chronic diseases of the skeletal system, including osteoporosis.
  • Consensus is building that light-skinned people should be getting 15-20 minutes of direct sunlight (without sunscreen) several times a week, and this sunlight should be at midday during winter in upper latitudes.  If a person is at risk of burning with this amount of sun exposure, the consensus is that they should work up to this amount of sun gradually, taking care never to burn. Darker skin people need much more sun than this to maintain adequate Vitamin D, on the order of several hours a day of lower latitude sunlight (or summer sunlight in upper latitudes). 
  • It is unclear at this point how darker-skinned people can reliably maintain adequate circulating Vitamin D and a reduced cancer risk during the winter in upper latitudes.  This may be a difficult piece of news for many people, and the science is far from settled on this topic, but it is a cautionary note worthy of mention.  Already, it is well established that African-Americans have higher cancer mortality than European-Americans in the northern United States, just as native Europeans have more cancer mortality in light-starved regions like Scandinavia than in the temperate parts of Europe.  Vitamin D3 supplementation may be needed for darker complexioned people, as a partial substitute for regular time under the tropical or subtropical sun – this topic is certainly worth a conversation with your physician.

A New Day In The Sun?

You may have found this article because of my involvement with the HumanaNatura natural health community, and perhaps may know that I am an advocate of our pursuit of natural health (a term often misunderstood but carefully defined by HumanaNatura).

Part of this advocacy involves suggesting and encouraging dietary and lifestyle changes to promote greater health and well-being.  This includes a call to increase the amount of time we spend outdoors, away from modern civilization (to get perspective on it) and in wild nature (to reconnect with it and our natural selves).  Inevitably, this alternative life means more time in the wind and heat, and rain and, yes, even in the natural sunlight of nature.

For the last two or three decades, as consensus built against sun exposure, I have always felt uneasy about this aspect of my natural health advocacy work.  Perhaps, I’ve thought, the sun is one area where nature and natural life does not promote our health and well-being, an exception to what is otherwise a sound and pervasive general rule.  But alongside this uneasiness, as I mentioned before, I have always questioned this anti-sunlight consensus, since it seemed at odds with what we know about our human life and evolution in nature.

I always avoid sunburns and will use a sunscreen if there is a chance I will burn, and you should too.  This takes some attentiveness when you first spend more time outdoors, and then when you spend a great deal of time outdoors, as I sometimes do – often an hour or more each day and then even for entire days when I am on an extended walk or hike.  I should add that I occasionally use sunscreen lotions, although I prefer the more natural methods of wearing a hat and other protective clothing when I am in the sun for extended periods, and of seeking midday shade and enjoying a leisurely lunch with friends in the summer and when I am in lower latitudes.

Still, with all these preparations, I know I am getting more sun than many would advise today.  It is a personal choice I consciously make and I know there are risks and uncertainties.  For me, not being outdoors would mean be not being fully alive, not being fully human, so there are enormous immediate benefits for me balancing out my potential long-term risks.  If you spend time outdoors, I know you appreciate the freedom and joy that being out in nature inevitably is, each day of outdoor life, and understand that we are willing to give up things for a life of these experiences.

If you do not spend time outdoors, you may not understand my position and may disagree with the choices I make.  Before you condemn me completely, I would point out that the risks we face from the sun may be smaller than previously thought.  Indeed, it may turn out that I am actually healthier in the way I live than if I had spent the last two or three decades avoiding the sun more aggressively, as many have suggested.  It certainly feels that way, emotionally and physically, but I will wait with you to see what the science of the sun finally says.

In the least, perhaps you will now feel better about the sun, and may even venture out beneath it and into nature more like me, extending yourself across the land in an ancient and more open human pattern of life.  Perhaps you will try it just to experience the fuller life I have spoken about, to see if you can really be fully alive and human, and truly healthy, without a life in the sun.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.

Tell others about HumanaNatura…encourage modern natural life & health!