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When discussing the HumanaNatura natural health system with others, I am often asked why we advocate walking over running in our Natural Exercise technique.
For many of us, running seems like real exercise, while walking is, well, just walking. And this is especially true if we envision short walks on flat walkways, as opposed to long ones on hilly footpaths.
Still, it is true that, step-for-step, walking is clearly less intense, and seems less like exercise, than running – and than many other aerobic activities. But ironically, it is exactly because of this quality that walking proves superior as a health promoter, especially across many people and over time.
In practice, walking – including hiking – is a more natural and, for many of us, more naturally enjoyable human activity, compared with running and other forms of intensive exercise. For people overall, walking offers greatly reduced risks of injury, is easier to sustain as a practice in our lives, and is far more likely to be practiced on a lifelong basis. Walking is also flexibly practiced and requires no special equipment. For all these reasons, the case for walking is pretty strong.
Of course, not everyone shares these views. For example, as respects the naturalness of walking, there is a body of theory and some evidence that humans engaged in sustained running, as opposed to natural episodic sprinting (from threats, etc.), as our hunting skills improved and we learned to track prey over longer distances.
Some use this idea today to advocate running as a principal form of modern exercise, and even to suggest that running is our preeminent or most desirable form of natural conditioning. But the science supporting this idea is controversial, while there is no doubt that our ancestors engaged in frequent and extended walks as a natural part of their lives – such as when foraging or moving to new encampments.
Others take the view that, since running is clearly more aerobically demanding and generally results in greater personal stamina than walking, it is a more desirable approach to conditioning. And though we may – and even should, for full or optimal natural conditioning – walk on hilly terrain and/or mix in periodic wind sprints during our walks, running will indeed still produce greater strength and endurance in us than walking.
However, and suggestively for discussions of the naturalness of running and walking, many people cannot run sustainably over time, especially as we age, or do not enjoy running. By contrast, nearly all of us can walk, enjoy walking, and can walk vigorously and for great distances, throughout most of our lives.
And though running produces greater stamina than walking, it is important to again emphasize that it does so with greater accompanying risks of both acute (temporary) and chronic (permanent) injury. Thus, the immediate fitness advantages of running and other forms of intensive aerobic exercise over walking have to be considered along with their longer-term effects, risks, and potential for sustainability.
But perhaps more importantly than all these considerations, there is one essential area where walking far exceeds running and other forms of intensive exercise, and one that personally led me to end a 25-year running practice in favor of walking and hiking.
This is walking’s unique ability to foster an attentive, observing, embracing, and thus renaturalized experience of life. And again suggesting walking’s naturalness for us, walking can produce this attention-heightening effect in us for extended periods of time, even for as long and as often as we walk, and in ways that are deeply satisfying and enjoyable.
As you can quickly explore and validate for yourself, running and walking are very different experientially. When we run, we become highly focused, generally reduce or narrow our attention and peripheral awareness, withdraw into the task or work of running, and generally think less or in more abbreviated bursts. Similarly, while periods running are intense, owing to this intensity they are often relatively brief, with runs typically lasting less than an hour.
Walking is quite different from running in this regard, and even profoundly so. Since it is a more relaxed and arguably more natural form of human exercise, we are generally not consumed with the mechanics of our actions, or the work of walking, when we walk.
We can and normally do look around us, increase our peripheral awareness, turn outward into the environment, and attend to it more deeply than when we are running or are otherwise task-engaged. We also tend to think more and in longer thoughts, and often will engage in extended reflection and calculation as we walk. And we can walk for hours on end in this way, and even for days on end.
For all these reasons, walking can be understood as a more natural, naturally enjoyable, sustainable, and optimal form of human conditioning, if a more moderate one, than running. In addition to conditioning us, walking also can be understood as a modern practice that is more likely to increase health-essential personal awareness, attentiveness, and reflection in our lives – traits that are often lacking or inadequately emphasized amid the strong task orientation that often dominates in our modern lives.
Given this, and especially walking’s natural ability to expand our outlooks and increase our attentiveness to life as it conditions us, I view walking as the superior exercise for progressive lifelong health, and even as a natural gateway to health across and throughout our lives.
I hope you will consider these ideas carefully – and perhaps naturally, over the course of a long walk.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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