Life

Nuala McCann: How I've learned to love the 'gift' of walking

A friend sends me a feature about the wonders of walking. Outside, the rain drizzles and I'm wondering what the view is from the coffee shop that said: "We sell f***ing perfect gear" on Lake Garda. It won't be raining there.

Walking can be good for body, mind and soul

SHANE O'Mara – who features in the feature – is a walkaholic as well as a neuroscientist. He believes that walking regularly unlocks the cognitive power of the brain.

He tells the journalist all about this whilst dodging across busy Dublin roads just when the lights start to change. My mother would have said that's taking your life in your hands. Shane argues that waiting for permission to cross the street is "one of life's great horrors".

He must have a bit of a death wish and he was clearly never in the Tufty Club.

But he truly subscribes to the wonders of big long lollops across the world. He believes that if we stop moving then we don't work so well and end up like the humble sea squirt that attaches itself to the side of a boat, refuses to shift and ends up devouring its own brain.

Shane is a professor and he knows about brains. He firmly believes that walking can help those with brain injuries.

My friend is an advertisement for walking too. She is in love with the Belfast hills and rises of a morning to walk for a good two hours. It gives her the kind of glow I only get after a bottle of champagne. It might also even give her a PhD in something strange just like Shane, if she keeps on walking. She has the passion of a Forrest Gump about her.

As someone who comes from a walking family, I grew up not feeling so much love for putting one foot in front of the other. My father took us out of a Sunday and often as not we ended up in the local cemetery – believe me, there is a story behind ever gravestone. Hello, Johnny Bashem. I remember you well.

We were all-weather people and I have trudged unhappily half a pace behind my father, like a forlorn Japanese wife, on cold wet winter Sundays. Fred and Ginger were tip tapping their way across the old black and white screen at home while we were out on the constitutional. Although I loved him dearly and never felt more secure than when he held me by the hand in the long-ago of childhood, I'd rather have been plonked in front of Top Hat with a tin of my mother's shortbread.

I could never see the point of the walking until I got back in through the door.

The teenage years were Donegal summers of resentment – left on a lonely beach as our parents meandered off across miles of sand.

Sweet? I thought not. Mrs Kearney opened her shop for a scant hour in the day and you had to walk a mile along a lonely mountain road for a quarter of Emerald toffees.

But perhaps in more recent years, I can see where Shane, the professor, is coming from. Was it the arrival of a child that did it?

A paediatrician originally from Northern Ireland advised that if your child is driving you mad, take said child outside… you're much less likely to murder them in public.

Hence, go for a walk.

Down the years we have enjoyed walks through the park charting the seasons, saluting single magpies, laughing at squirrels chasing each other up trees and trying, at all times, to avoid being hit on the head by a low flying golf ball.

Forever, I shall remember the path along Lake Garda that we took this summer and how we turned the corner to see children fling themselves off the bridge and hit the water with a splash to emerge wet black heads bobbing like baby seals in the water below.

Rewind and there were other walks in the long ago, up the Mournes or on Slemish in the days before tourism was in and you had the hill to yourselves.

We tried mindful meditative walking once, with a teacher. But we ended up standing on each other's heels and destroying the stillness. There is nothing like someone trying to catch your eye and make you laugh as you rummage for inner peace on your zafu.

Still, when I open the door wide these days, I get Shane's message. A walk is a gift... take it joyfully.

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