Walking might be good for you, but it also ruins your life
When you walk, the truth appears, annoying and inevitable, and all the fantasies about eternal youth and bodily perfection become vain
Like so many people, I walk every day. I do it briskly and by prescription. My rheumatologist persuaded me, with literature and tons of advice, that moderate exercise will make my life better: if I keep at it, I can make the degenerative disease that has already fused several of my vertebrae progress very slowly, or even stop. Still, breaking out of the sedentary lifestyle was not easy. The pain of the first days of activity was excruciating. But I trusted the literature that ensured that if I applied myself and held on, I would not take long to notice some improvements. And I am glad I listened to the doctor. Today, walking is a pleasure, almost a necessity, a habit that I miss a lot on the days when I can’t do it. I put on my sneakers, get my earphones and happily go out into the street to follow my route through parks, groves and streams.
I am not going to deny it: I am another person. A better person. I have lost weight, recovered some mobility and no longer suffer those terrible pains. I am more comfortable, not to mention that now that I’m off the painkillers and can bend over to pick things up without asking for help. I’m probably less annoying to be around. And yet, despite all this, I refuse to fool those friends who celebrate the change: my life is better, yes, but it’s also shitty.
Perhaps it is because I walk in sound isolation, listening to podcasts that analyze Dvořák’s American Quartet, but my walks often have an astral feeling to them. After a few steps, the consciousness starts to float, free, contemplating the silent world. At the time of the day that I usually walk, I’m surrounded by people working out. Among them, the runners — the aristocrats of this kingdom — stand out. They wear their athletic clothes like armor; they know themselves to be owners of the park, never straying from their meticulously calculated routes, always chasing their marks and goals. Since I can’t hear them coming, they often brush past me; some day they will knock me down and trample me with the same contempt with which a feudal lord would trample his enemies with his horse. Then there are the cyclists, another noble order of exercise, with similar habits and arrogance. They look down on us in much the same way mountaineers do to hikers. For them, walkers are the bottom of the food chain, a species that is not even worthy of being preyed upon because it is tasteless and has no nutrients. Energy bars are better.
But it’s not their contempt that makes my life shitty. I expected it, and accept its classism: I certainly deserve it, because I represent everything they hate. If we lived in an effective caste system, they wouldn’t have to cross paths with me, but this damn democracy gives us the right to use the same parks, so I just try to stay out of their way. On the other hand, walkers like me bring me down. There are many of us; most — I must say — are older than I am. At 43, I am the youth of the tribe. The others are on average 15 or 20 years older, and most of them look sad and broken. I don’t know what they tell their friends and family when they applaud their persistence and the physique they’re getting, but when you’re in the park you can’t hide your mood, and while I listen to Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, what their faces tell me is: this sucks.
Perhaps with Mozart, or an aria from Tosca, their faces would seem more cheerful to me. After all, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, dedicated to the siege of Leningrad, speaks of death and cannibalism — but precisely for that reason it gives me the right measure of truth. I can guess that many walkers (for reasons of cardiological statistics, most are men) have already had one heart attack and are trying to conjure up their second. All they ask of life is a little more time. They are aware that they are not really in a position to bargain with fate, that they cannot ask for passionate love affairs or to become a trap star and twerk with Nathy Peluso. Just a little more of what they already have, that winter sun and the mild relief that endorphins provide — that will do. Just like I’m content with being able to nod or shake my head without my vertebrae creaking. That is where our sadness comes from: the acute awareness of the end. We have few memento vita left. One has to settle for the memento mori, which are more interesting in literary terms anyway. But damn you, literature.
I would like to keep their secret. In a world obsessed with health and the body, social hypocrisy forces us to be grateful and to preach the gospel of an active life. But I listen to Shostakovich for a reason. I do feel better with this orderly, low-fat and almost teetotal lifestyle, but my life was much more interesting when I ignored the recommendations of the WHO, and with the sad eyes of an old dog, my walking companions tell me the same thing. The smoke from those cigarettes and all that wine might have been a fast track to the grave, but what a rich, subtle and welcoming tomb. That train of filth and sleeplessness was without a doubt a much happier ride than the righteous journey through the wooded path of well-being.
We walkers know it. We, who live because we have to live, because the opposite would be stupid. But to walk, from Socrates to the present, passing through all the philosophers that Ramón del Castillo — another walker — mentions in his essay Filósofos de paseo (Strolling Philosophers), is a prestigious act, not only compatible with thought, but also a facilitator of it. And as walking thinkers we understand that the only way to coordinate mind and body is through deception. When you walk, the truth appears, annoying and inevitable, and all the fantasies about eternal youth and bodily perfection become vain. You do it because you have to, because the alternative is terrifying, but don’t infantilize us with self-deceptions that are not appropriate for an adult. We were happier before. To live with the knowledge that all that is over may make us wiser, maybe even exemplary, but also a bit Sisyphean and mechanical. Somehow, we are less human, and as the population pyramid is inverted, soon we will almost all be old people walking in the parks and the future will be stripped of humanity — paler, with elegiac music, closer to Shostakovich’s melancholies than to Beethoven’s outbursts. We will be wiser too. But we will be shit.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition