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Covid-19 recovery: how a simple walk can help, body and soul

Patients recovering from the longer-term after-effects of Covid-19 have discovered that walking is an important part of their rehabilitation.

Anthropologist and sociology professor David le Breton, from Strasbourg University, has written three books on the health benefits of walking and is not surprised. A keen long-distance walker himself, he said walking – even at a leisurely pace – can transform health.

The importance of walking

“We are too sedentary: we spend our time sitting down on the sofa, at work, in the car, for leisure ... so just being upright and walking improves physical health,” he said. “It helps breathing and heart problems, and people who have recovered from Covid-19 have told me that walking was an important part of their recovery. They discovered the pure joy of walking.”

An academic with a more-or-less sedentary job, Mr le Breton, 66, discovered walking in the 1990s, the same time, he said, that many people were rediscovering simple pleasures. His first book was mainly about the importance of walking, the second about why walking is such a success worldwide.

His latest, Marcher la vie: Un art tranquille du bonheur is about how we experience walking, how, as post-Covid patients have discovered, it can be a healer and a return to life. He has walked extensively in Brazil, Italy, and Canada. “I also used to walk a lot in French towns and cities. When I was young, I spent hours walking. I also like walking beside the sea, and I’ll never forget the thrill of walking in the desert in Chile.”

These days he walks with his partner Hmina and finds walking the perfect complement to an otherwise sedentary life. He says lots of long-distance walkers who set off on classic pilgrimages such as the Chemins de Saint Jacques de Compostelle may be suffering from illnesses or depression. “They walk thousands of kilometres more or less in silence, and many shake off their depression, their mental stress, and find a new feeling. They rediscover their place in the world,” he said.

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Walking routes of France

There is a network of long-distance trails all across France, known as Sentiers de Grande Randonnée. The 35,000km of marked trails are identified by GR numbers. Some are easy and short, like the GR98-51, a 25km two-day hike around the coastal inlets near Marseille. Others are more challenging, like the Chemins de Saint Jacques de Compostelle, a series of four trails across France into Spain. 

A particularly popular historic route is the GR65 linking Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle, which is walked by thousands of people a year. He said that walking means becoming more aware of the world around you, noticing nature, seeing protected, beautiful spaces, and being constantly amazed by silence, and animals, the multitude of odours, like the scent of fresh rain falling on rich earth. “You can walk at your own rhythm. Each person walks at their own pace, and rests when they like. It’s an enchanted space in modern life. It’s a way of taking your time.”

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Regular exercise necessary for wellbeing

He said regular exercise is vital for people’s entire physical wellbeing. “The physical effort can be as little or as much as you like but it is constant so it means you can eat and drink as much as you like, too, and you enjoy eating and drinking and sleeping because walking makes you hungry, thirsty and tired. You rediscover the world through your senses.”

Although many people walk alone, the social element is also important. “Walking means meeting people, it’s a universe of civility and small exchanges – of smiles, greetings, a simple hello, or even tips and advice.” His latest book is a wander through the literature of walking, exploring the joys of it, as well as the little vexations and disappointments involved. You can get lost, you could tear a muscle, fall over, get wet in the rain, get surprised by the night, or meet over-excited dogs, for example. These things are rare, however, and walkers can stop when they like. That’s the joy, it is all at your pace.”

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Long-distance walks, taking two or three months, present physical challenges, especially at the beginning. “People rarely stop because of the initial discomforts. They continue walking and the more you walk, the fitter you get, the easier it gets and the more you enjoy it. “In fact, lots of walkers have difficulty in stopping walking. However far they’ve come in a day, they still want to go on walking. It depends where you are. Some places are so beautiful that I never want to stop walking. The pleasure is you do exactly what you like in beautiful surroundings.”

Mr le Breton was inspired to write the book when he was researching material for a project about society and the body. “I was reading a lot of scientific information about superseding the body by somehow uploading the soul, the brain, the essence of a person into a computer. I was so exhausted reading these books, I decided to read about walking. I needed to read a eulogy of the body, and nature, and the senses, to remember that we are incarnate in the world. We exist physically in the world, and when we are out walking, we can physically feel that we exist in the natural world, that we have resonance with the physical world."

“Walking isn’t a religious experience for me but it can be a spiritual experience. Joyful.” He said he wrote the book to demonstrate that discovering the joy of existing is simple at base. “We can be available to the world. We can learn to slow down, contemplate the beauty of the world. We can take the time to live.”

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