Jan/Feb 2016A Walk in the Woodsby Dennis Chastain, photos by Michael Foster

We all know walking is good for what ails you, but a walk in the woods? That takes it to a whole other level.

Wouldn't it be great if there was a pill that would help increase good cholesterol, deflate that spare tire around your waist, clear your cluttered mind, promote creativity and improve your overall cardiovascular fitness? Well, no such pill exists, but there is something even better. It's all natural and does not require a fitness club membership or any special equipment. A wealth of actual research data has shown that the simple act of walking can do all of the above and more.

Of course, none of this is breaking news. As far back as the third century B.C., Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician considered the father of Western medicine, proclaimed, "Walking is man's best medicine." Throughout history, some of our greatest thinkers have come to the same conclusion.

"Walking," said Thomas Jefferson, "is the best exercise of all."

"If you want to live to a ripe old age," advised the energetic former President Harry Truman, "take a two-mile walk every day before breakfast."

Charles Darwin, the man who rocked the world with his deceptively simple premise on the origin of species through natural selection, had his "sand walk," a now famous woodland path that he constructed near his study so he could break away from the tedium of working out the details of one of the most revolutionary concepts in the history of mankind to take a walk in the woods.

Okay, walking good, sedentary lifestyle bad - we all get that. But the real news here for most folks is the fact that walking in the woods has benefits above and beyond walking on a treadmill, around the local high school track, or within the crowded confines of a shopping mall.

When you walk in the woods, whether it's along a well-manicured woodland path, an old logging road, or bush-wacking through uncharted territory, you encounter uneven terrain, speed up and slow down, you go uphill and you go downhill, and from time to time you may even stop and smell the roses.

All of which tends to exercise all the muscles, the cardiovascular system and the mind in a more natural, low-impact way. When we walk for pleasure or for our health, said Henry David Thoreau, "we naturally go to the fields and woods."

What would happen to us if we only walked in a garden or a mall?

Something special, something akin to magic, happens when you walk in the woods. You can feel it when you leave the parking lot and enter the forest. The thousands of things that tend to clutter our minds just melt away. Nothing that happened at the office, or in school, or on the job, seems to matter anymore. The constant background noise of modern life fades away and eventually the sights and scents and sounds of nature flood your senses. The rat-a-tat-tat of a nearby woodpecker, the soft swirl of wind in the pines, the rhythmic humming of cicadas, the cheerful chirping of songbirds, all combine to fill your senses in a way that an iPod and ear buds simply cannot do.

Without any effort on your part, you automatically become more focused, more attuned to what is going on around you. Upon entering a woodland trail, the first thing most people notice is the quiet. The silence can be deafening, as someone once said. We have become so accustomed to the steady background hum of modern daily life that the relative quiet of the woods is a bit unsettling at first, as if something is wrong. But nothing is wrong. This is the way it is supposed to be. This is the way it has been for tens of thousands of years, and for that reason, over time, it harkens to our inner self, sharpens our awareness and restores the soul.

Then, as time passes along the trail, you begin to detect the subtle sights and sounds and scents of the forest, very pleasingly different from what you might encounter on any given day of city life. The fresh scent of pine, the delicious woodsy aroma of the good earth, the bold floristic display of a wild azalea in full bloom or a delicate wild orchid leaning out from the brush border along the trail are the kinds of things that please the eye, soothe the soul and are not soon forgotten. A chance encounter with a flock of wild turkeys, a spotted deer fawn or a big fat raccoon washing his hands alongside a meandering stream are the spice of life, and something you are not likely to encounter in a shopping mall or on a treadmill.

So, let's say that you have decided that walking in the woods is in fact an easy, enjoyable way to work exercise into your daily routine. How do you get started? First, if you have any questions about whether you are physically capable of taking on a program of sustained walking, talk with your health care provider. There are indeed some pre-existing medical conditions that might actually preclude even this most basic form of exercise.

But let's assume for the time being that you have been cleared for take-off, then step one is to find a place to walk. Virtually everyone in South Carolina lives within a relatively short drive of a good place where you can walk in the woods to your heart's desire. Start with state parks and state forests. Numerous state parks and five state forests are strategically located throughout South Carolina, from the mountains to the coast, and virtually all have a variety of woodland trails. Don't overlook our expansive national forests, which also boast an impressive network of walking trails. If you live in the country and shun the crowds that sometimes show up along the more popular pathways, there is probably an old logging road in the back forty that will take you where you want to go.

Next, use common sense. Don't set out on a three-mile hike if you have spent the last ten years reclined on a sofa switching channels with the remote control. Ease into it and set realistic goals. Loop trails are great for the novice woodland walker. You end up where you began, back at the parking lot. Keep in mind that if you walk two miles on most hiking trails you have to walk that same distance to get back to the car. Think it through before you leave the house. And it is always a good policy to sign in at the trailhead if a register exists. If not, make sure that someone knows where you will be.

The single most important thing to keep in mind when beginning a program of woodland walking is to tailor your plan to suit your needs, wants, desires and ability. Decades of research into the benefits of walking - in the woods and otherwise - all confirm a general principle. You get out of it what you put into it. If your goal is simply to get away from it all and commune with nature, then ambling along virtually any woodland path will fill the bill. On the other hand, if you have decided to "get in shape," you need to start slowly and work your way up. Don't push it, stroll along at your own pace and try to pick it up over time. Start out on relatively short, primarily flat, loop trails. Later on, you can begin to extend your range and look for a little more challenging terrain.

Most people walk at a leisurely pace of about two miles per hour, which, as one philosopher proclaimed, is "the speed at which we are designed to experience the world," but if you already lead an active lifestyle and your goal is oriented more towards a cardiovascular workout, you will probably want to pick up the pace.

Most of the research regarding the health benefits of walking has been conducted with people engaged in what is called vigorous walking. If this is your goal, you will need to kick up the pace to three or even four miles per hour, the kind of brisk walking that gets your heart rate up and causes you to break a sweat. Then as you make progress in your level of strength and stamina, you can add a daypack with weights to achieve an even higher level of fitness. Fitness experts say you should set a goal of thirty minutes of vigorous walking each day, three to five times each week in order to derive maximum benefits. Of course you can do all of this on a treadmill or just about anywhere else, but to get the full advantage of walking in the woods, try interspersing your cardio workouts with periods of contemplative ambling along. Consider it a cool-down period. It's like combining the best of both possible worlds.

Another important guideline for planning a walk in the woods is to pay attention to the weather and the season of the year. If there is a chance of rain, carry a parka. If it's going to be hot as blazes, dress lightly and carry plenty of water. If it's bone-chilling cold out there, dress in layers. If it's bug season, apply bug dope (insect repellant) and carry a pocket-sized first aid kit for possible stings and bites. If you are allergic to poison ivy, apply one of the widely available, over-the-counter preventative lotions before you leave. Also, it is a good practice to carry a cell phone in case of emergencies. Stuff sometimes happens when you are in the woods.

This last suggestion is optional, but I have found it helpful during a lifetime of trekking through the woods and wild places of this great state - use a walking stick or something like it. A walking stick helps you maintain your balance in tricky terrain. You can use it to push vegetation or spider webs aside if you are walking off-trail, and it is nice to lean on when you take a breather. You can cut one for yourself at home or purchase one. You might also consider a pair of the increasingly popular ski pole type walking sticks. Regardless of what you choose, you will likely find them indispensable over time. By the way, using a walking stick, particularly the ski pole type hiking sticks, can actually increase your caloric burn rate. Turns out that swinging your arms during vigorous walking, as you do with walking sticks, significantly increases the calories you burn per mile, even more reason to walk softly and carry a big stick, or even two. The main thing is to make the decision to actually do it, to get up off the sofa and take a walk in the woods.

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