How a daily practice of walking as a college student in Spain became a transformative experience that intersects with issues of city planning, health and longevity, environmental sustainability, community and purpose.
By Frank Lesko
I spent a semester in Segovia, Spain, in 1997 while attending Hiram College. Segovia is a small city in the north-central region of Spain, known for hosting one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts in the world. Its majestic Álcazar castle was a primary model for the queen’s castle in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Yet, surrounded by these ancient structures, in a country rich in artistic splendor and immersed in my daily language study, one of the most profound experiences from that time was not something I would have expected in the least.
I lived outside of town with an older couple. My roommate and I quickly learned that we weren’t going to use public transportation regularly–it just cost too much. Maybe locals had a better deal with a seasonal pass of some kind, but in our fumbling Spanish we could never figure that out.
We tallied up the price of a single fare twice a day, 5+ days a week over the course of a semester and it was far more than we were going to pay. Buses were there for emergencies.
So we walked. And we walked.
Every day. Rain or shine. In sickness and in health. Through blisters and bad moods and everything in between. Being inexperienced walkers, it felt like many miles each way! It may have been a couple miles each way for most trips. We never accurately calculated the true distance (all we had was a paper tourist map as this was long before Google Maps and Fitbits!).
But it was so invigorating. We felt great, especially in the mornings. Getting that big walk in the morning opened up the whole day. On days when we did not walk, we were well aware that we didn’t feel as good, not as refreshed, just generally groggy and cruddy in comparison (you know, a typical day in America!). And we walked through ancient streets, through an open-air fish market and we had our companionship for much of it, and every bit of that mattered. We didn’t walk just for exercise, we walked to go places. It was exercise with purpose. We had to walk even when we didn’t feel like it, but after a while, more often than not, we always felt like it.
It seemed silly that walking would have had such a profound effect on us–we were 21-year-old men who could do a whole lot more than walking! This is old people stuff, right? Yet we were absolutely gobsmacked by its impact on us. The human species evolved in no small way for walking and I’m convinced its impact goes far beyond mere exercise.
The distance mattered–our peers who lived closer to the town center and only walked a few blocks had nowhere near the same experience with walking as we did who lived farther out.
Being forced to do it meant that we did it consistently. It also meant we didn’t have to expend energy maintaining the focus of self-discipline.
We both vowed to continue this when we got back to the states but we abandoned the whole practice almost instantly. He might have continued longer than I did but he did his thing and I did mine. I made a few attempts but they never took hold into a regular practice. Something that was natural and communal had to evolve into something that required self-discipline and not many people will continue after that transition. And that’s my point here.
One of the things I liked so much about the “Secrets of the Blue Zones” documentary on Netflix was that it underscores that health should be the natural end result of our environment. It’s probably not your fault if you are overweight or unhealthy. Or that our communities are fragmented.
Being healthy shouldn’t require us to go to extreme lengths to build a system for ourselves drastically outside of the normal flow of life. Yet, that’s what we see promoted in our culture: “If you’re overweight, you must lack self-discipline!” We’re told we have to tack on costly gym memberships, supplements and diet regimens onto an already busy life. I partake in some of those things, too, but they are at best a bridge to a better life–health should just be part of life. Diets and supplements should be temporary measures to get us through unusual times.
I was ready, willing and able to continue a vastly impactful practice of daily walking and it didn’t last a day back in the states where it wasn’t built into the regular structure of my life. It was too easy to put it off for the next day, and then the daily practice of walking a few miles turned into maybe a once-a-month expedition of a quarter mile–that is, if I didn’t mind using up all my free time just to walk in a big loop somewhere. It was not the same experience at all. When it became just “exercise” it was divorced from purpose, from natural companionship, and it lost its magic. It required self-discipline and extra time and it wasn’t woven into the normal fabric of life. In Spain, we didn’t walk for “exercise.” That was a by-product. We walked because we had places to go to!
The centenarians studied in the blue zones are often people to whom good diet and exercise is just part of the natural infrastructure of their lives. It’s there no matter what. It doesn’t take enormous self-discipline to adhere to. As a result, they don’t have to try to be healthy, for the most part. Sure, they may have to steer away from the lure of bad habits from time to time, but their daily lives do not involve massive undertakings of self-discipline along these lines. They don’t count calories eaten nor calories burned. And the exercise they do includes things like walking, stairs, gardening, farm chores–not marathons, weightlifting or extreme sports.
In the U.S., we scoff at the notion of central planning. It sounds socialist! (as if somehow that’s a bad thing). But planning happens whether we like it or not. We didn’t just become a car dependent culture through some “natural” fee market choice making. We had a very popular
public transportation system with trains and trolleys in the early part of the 20th century. In many cases, car companies bought up those systems and shut them down to force car ownership.
Car companies colluded with city officials to plan out a world where car use was an integral part of life: The suburbs were built. Other technologies besides gas-guzzling cars were actively discouraged (better, cheaper, more environmentally friendly options did not simply lose out in the free market). Our car dependence was the result of–you guessed it–deliberate planning.
But it wasn’t a “central” planning that involved all of us, it was certain special interests (i.e. car and oil companies) who planned our world for us and now we’re stuck with it.
We’ve got to be actively involved in shaping the society we want. If we don’t, there are plenty of special interests who will shape it for us. They will market products and make us dependent on them. However, even the democratic process of building our own world has been largely taken from us. How would we even begin the process? What are even the touchpoints to interface with any mechanisms along those lines? There are no easy answers. There are grassroots organizations like Simply LIving to help residents find ways to interface in these issues. Some of us may simply have to go entirely against the grain to start a process that others can then join in once the ball gets rolling.
City planning has so many possibilities but keeping big box chain stores and mega-corporations out of the process is probably difficult, but if building a world of low-cost options (not to mention local artists, artisans and entrepreneurs) is part of it, then we have to. But we have to do more than farmers markets and bike lanes, important as they may be. We’ve got to make far more significant changes. It’s not a stretch to say our lives depend on it.
A lifetime gym membership? A lifetime dependence on automobiles? A lifetime dependence on pharmaceuticals? A life doomed to severe isolation? I want none of that. I dream of walking with the people I know and love through open air fish markets, past live musicians and street dancers, past chatty neighbors, through historical artifacts but most importantly–building history in the here and now with the people around me. Building health. Building relationships. Building a better world. All that can happen if we sculpt our world so that we can take walks together.