When we left the trees – for good.
At a specific time between 4.2 and 3.5 million years ago, one of our hominid ancestors made a decision that would change the future of humans and our planet.
This ancestor, Australopithecus aferensis, better known as Lucy, made her way down a tree until she planted both feet firmly on the ground. Short excursions from the safety of trees had gone on for millions of years, but this time was different; she would walk away and never return to an arboreal lifestyle again.
Her kind would adapt to dramatic climatic changes and evolve to be comfortable in a wide range of environments, from desert to jungle and mountains to plains.
And most importantly, this species would be the first to walk upright permanently; we would be terrestrial creatures from that point on. Climbing would give way to walking and running. This ability would dramatically affect everything from what we ate to how we procured it.
Leaving behind a diet based mostly on soft fruits, we would turn our ability to run and tool-making skills into hunting for meat. We would use our mobility to spread throughout the world.
In time, the mere act of walking would lead to our dominance over all other life on our planet, for better or worse.
We still walk and run in much the same way that Lucy did. We honor this unique form of ambulation so much that we revere it as a sport.
The very first Olympics had only one event. Called the stadion, the contestant sprinted 180 meters. Over time other running and walking events were added.
Today’s Olympics offer, in addition to numerous running events, a men’s 50K race walking event and a 20K women’s walking event.
Walking upright has many obvious advantages. After leaving the trees, we can now travel far beyond our local watering hole. And, we would take full advantage of this ability.
Bi-pedal locomotion liberated the hands to carry babies while traveling, carry tools and weapons, and ultimately create art and writing.
The change in the anatomy required to walk upright also improves our heat loss by convection, allowing us to venture into warmer climates for more extended periods.
But, like all compromises required for evolutionary adaptation, there are often downsides. One huge imposition is that our spine is more susceptible to injuries, particularly in the low back.
Most humans will suffer back pain at some point in their lives. I can honestly say that I have never heard my quadrupedal dogs complain about back pain. And, if they did, I would need to find a psychiatrist post haste.
Health benefits of walking
Last week we went over some of the primary health benefits of walking; reduction in blood pressure, weight loss and stress reduction. Another bonus for us seniors, walking helps to maintain good balance.
Recent research lengthens the list of health benefits, including increased stamina, even in aging adults. Walking improves our immune systems, which is a huge boon; even moderate walking can mitigate chronic pain.
A common question about walking is how it compares with running.
Most science-based sources agree that walking offers as many health benefits as running. After all, walking, like running, is an aerobic cardiovascular activity.
Cardiovascular means that both the heart rate and respiration increase. This results in more oxygenated blood reaching all body parts, including muscles. And, this is good!
As you might know or guess, running burns more calories than walking per unit of time. However, you can get the same health benefits, but, as you may also imagine, you will have to walk faster, longer or uphill.
How much benefit you obtain from walking is relative to how many steps you take and your pace. A slower pace results in modest results, whereas a faster rate increases the benefits.
If you’re willing and able, you can transition to walking and reap the same benefits as running. Additionally, walking causes far fewer injuries than running. At some point, most runners experience injuries, such as shin splints and knee and hip problems – walkers rarely do.
Another advantage of walking over running has to do with the stimulation of hunger. Running burns about twice the calories as walking, so it is understandable that runners will feel hungry faster.
Unless you are speed-walking, hunger is kept at bay for longer when walking. If you are walking to lose weight, this is an advantage. You’re not as likely to return from walking and grab a Twinkie to satiate your hunger. Not that you would eat such junk food, I’m only saying.
What about those healthy-looking Amish people?
A 2004 Canadian study on obesity among Amish had startling results. Americans have an obesity rate of 31 percent compared to 4 percent obesity among the Amish.
Pedometers were worn by the Old Order Amish men and women, recording their total steps each day, followed by a daily measurement of obesity using the Body Mass Index.
Not only did the study reveal that obesity rates were dramatically lower among Amish, but it revealed that Amish men walked a whopping 18,000 steps per day on average and women walked an average of 14,000 steps.
It is interesting to point out that the Amish diet is definitely not low carb and low fat. Amish restaurants are tourist destinations where diners go to enjoy fried chicken, potatoes, gravy, homemade bread, and those delicious slabs of Amish pie.
They may leave the restaurant feeling a little guilty, but, what the hay, you can always go back to the latest trend in dieting tomorrow.
The number of steps touted for good health in the U.S. is 10,000. However, there is no real science behind that particular number, even though most Americans are led to believe that 10,000 steps is the gold standard for daily walking regimens.
Science can affirm that walking 5,000 steps per day reaps more health benefits than 2,000 steps, 10,000 steps are better than 5,000 steps, and so on. Although 10,000 is not a magic number, the farther you walk, the better you’ll feel. And, you may even live longer.
Nearly everyone can afford to walk. But can you afford not to?
Here’s to your health,
This column is dedicated to Lucy. Although, I sometimes wonder if we, and our precious planet, might have fared better if she had stayed in the trees.
Citations are available on request.