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 WALKING: a way of being

Walking used to be part of any human being's daily life until, during the second half of the past century, it became an accepted pattern, at least in Western society, for everyone to have a car. I also have a car. I have owned one since 1964. Ownership of a car can very well be combined with a healthy walking practice. It merely requires some conscious decision making at the start, a very minor investment (which is, of course, more than compensated for by the savings resulting from reduced car use), after which walking becomes as natural and automatic as using your car. If you get over that initial hurdle of giving up something you have grown used to, you will soon see how it changes your life and gives you an entirely new perspective of yourself and the world you live in. More importantly, perhaps, and despite your spending more time while moving between places, you are likely to experience that less of that time is wasted (compared to time spent using your car or public transport) and that overall you are a much more productive and creative person, something that is borne out also by research.

Many questions were raised, implicitly or explicitly, in messages I received after I completed, on August 7, 2000, a recorded total of 40 000 km, the equivalent of the earth's equator, of walking. It had taken me exactly seven years to do so. I completed the subsequent circumperambulation in slightly less than seven years on July 7, 2007, and reached the 100,000 km mark after exactly 1000 weeks of walking on October 7, 2012. Going even further, on October 2nd in 2015 I had completed three rounds around the world, i.e. walked a total 120,000 km. Why do I do this? How did I accomplish what I did? How valid is the claim? Where did my steps lead me? What has it meant to me? Should anyone else do it? Has anyone else done it? I shall try to answer some of these questions below. Hopefully it will encourage others to emulate the practice and enjoy its benefits.

By the way, the photograph at the top of the page shows one of my favorite places for walking: a small protected biotope called "La Caume" in Les Alpilles in the South of France, close to where we own a four centuries old house. The area is accessible throughout the year, except - for reasons of forest fire prevention - between July 1 and the second Saturday in September.

I made the photograph below of Alberto Giacometti's "Walking Man" in 1976 in The Netherlands in another nature reserve, the "Hoge Veluwe" on the premises of the Kröller-Müller museum. This sculpture is one of my favorite works of art. It shows walking, with all its multiple connotations and dimensions, as one of the most human of human behaviors.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966): Walking Man Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966): "Walking Man"


So, here's my walking story


As one of the people who wrote me after I had completed my first 40 000 recorded kilometers suggested, walking is "just what I do." It's very much part of my natural behavior, just like for other people it is quite normal to cover similar distances by bike, by car, or using public transport. However, I have not always done so. As a child, I used a scooter, in addition to walking and running, as a means to explore my hometown Rotterdam (at the time still pretty much in ruins). The scooter was replaced by a bike, which expanded my horizon as far as Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Germany. Then came the car, used to travel between cities, for weekend trips to Paris in the nineteen sixties to see the latest films, as well as later for a couple of extensive intra- and intercontinental explorations (two trips to the Middle East, one along the North African coast and deep into the Sahara, and two covering multiple countries in East and Southern Africa).

Extensive walking became a habit of mine only while working in Zimbabwe in the early nineteen-nineties. It started out as jogging in the early morning hours, prompted by enhanced awareness that such was good for my health. I owe it to the general practitioner who was looking after me at the time, Dr. Jack, then more than 70 years old, that I substituted walking for jogging. Dr. Jack showed me that most joggers - and I was one of them - adopt the wrong posture while jogging, risking to harm their body rather than improve it.

So, for me, walking gradually became the thing to do. Nothing but sheer pleasure. I had been walking distances of 100 km per week for perhaps half a year when I decided, on August 9, 1993, to start recording my cumulative total. As the numbers added up, I soon discovered that it is very well possible to walk the equivalent of distances such as from Nairobi to Harare, Amsterdam to Madrid, or New York to San Francisco. I was in the middle of a bridge over the River Nile when I had walked the equivalent of the earth's diameter. In June 2000 I realized that I had almost walked the equivalent of the earth's circumference and that I could make it in exactly seven years if I would put in a couple of weeks in which I would walk 200 km rather than my regular 100 km. I had done such weekly distances before at times there was a reason to walk more than normal. This time, the only time in seven years, I did it on purpose and walked 600 km in three weeks. The rest was easy. I was not conscious at the time of the profound symbolism associated with the numbers 7 and 40, which others kindly reminded me of.


First you buy a pedometer, an instrument that you wear on your belt and that counts your steps. You have to tell it what the length of your stride is and then it calculates the distance you walk. I bought my first pedometer in 1992 in Hong Kong and have been wearing these instruments permanently since August 9, 1993. They don't last forever. I have probably had about seven of them. Don't trust their accuracy too much. I calibrate them rigorously over long distances and for different walking styles, making sure that the average count is correct. I also keep checking them for accuracy. This is important because your walking stytle and stride may change over time. As I grew older over the past more than two decades since I started counting, my stride gradually diminished from 92 cm to 87 cm.

I think the phrase "meten is weten" (to measure is to know) was made popular by the Dutch physicist Minnaert, great popularizer not only of science, but particularly of the attitudes and skills of being scientifically engaged and appreciative of the wonders of nature. Had I not had my pedometer, I would never have been so daily aware of how far I had walked. Looking at the digital display of my pedometer has become second nature, just like looking at the dashboard instruments is an automatism when you drive a car.


I'm not aware of other people wearing pedometers perpetually. My doing so - and particularly my fascination with the cumulative count, which I record on a weekly basis - has definitely contributed to a change of my behavior. Typically, for instance, while working at UNESCO headquarters in Paris during the late nineteen-nineties, I would avoid using the elevator but instead climb the stairs. Rather than trying to reach a colleague by phone, I would walk the corridors to see the person in his or her office. For any errand in town, I would walk rather than take the metro. When on mission to foreign countries, I would choose a hotel at a convenient walking distance - four to five kilometers - away from where I had to work. Such a choice could add interest and excitement to a trip such as when, in Jerusalem, my hotel was in the East and my work in the West. Walking provided an integrated perspective of two opposed worlds.

There may not be many people walking the slightly more than 100 km a week necessary to go around the world in seven years. But I know of at least one case of someone who made a comparable decision in 1950 and stuck to it. Abraham Pais, in his autobiography "A Tale of Two Continents: A Physicist's Life in a Turbulent World," describes how, when he worked in Princeton, NJ, he used to walk from where he lived to where he worked, "in all about a 45-minute walk. That way of starting the day agreed so well with me that up to the present [the book came out in 1997, JV] I have kept up the daily routine of a morning walk first. I have estimated that in this way I have covered a distance twice around the equator." OK, it took him five times as long to walk twice the distance I covered in seven years, but it's really not the magic figure of 100 km a week that is important, but rather the consistency of behavior and how it fits in with the rhythm of your life.


Since I learned to walk again, I have rediscovered how much of what we see, and how intensely we perceive it, depends on how we move. Driving cars, as everyone knows, is an environmental hazard. But more than that, it also deprives one of the thrill of being bodily immersed in the environment. Only when you walk can you stop without difficulty, attend to every insect, every leave of grass, every flower, every stone. At night you can marvel at the stars and thanks to the power of peripheral vision still not bump into other people or be run over.

While you walk you can even read. I've found out that reading while walking can become an intense pleasure. Obviously, it requires getting accustomed to it and developing the skill to be alert at what happens around you while you walk and read. There has been serious research that shows correlation between creativity and rhythmic bodily activity, such as engaged in by athletes. There is also the practice of ancient Greece of the teaching/learning dialogue in the walkways of the gymnasium. I can testify to the fact that my best thoughts normally come to me while I walk. Not unfrequently would they be a walking reflection on what I read or on what is being conversed about when walking together with other persons. So much has this become part of my life experience that I often deliberately go for a walk when I want to think deeply.

I have had the privilege to walk in an incredible number of places, spread over all continents except Antarctica. You can probably get no better, no more intense, impression of a place than by finding your way around while walking. I retain a strong visual memory of all the places where I have been. When I visit them again years later, I can usually find my way again immediately.

Having walked the equivalent of more than three times the circumference of the earth, I now know - I know it with my body - how small this planet is and how fragile its biosphere. I have seen the beauty of its nature and its people. I have stood in awe of its fantastic diversity of cultures. It was no great accomplishment, but one that I tremendously enjoyed and am grateful for.

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As of March 25, 2017, my cumulative total of recorded walked kilometers since August 9, 1993, is

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walking advisory

Walking in the open air is a great delight. In addition, it has important health benefits for both body and mind. Nonetheless, overexposure to the sun can be dangerous as it may cause skin cancer. You can read more about it in a much quoted article on Sunlight and Skin Cancer, by David J. Leffell and Douglas E. Brash in the Scientific American of July 1996. This article used to be available on the Web site of the Scientific American for free, but this is, unfortunately, no longer the case. The article can, though, be purchased from them.

In any case, to fully enjoy the benefits of walking, it is strongly recommended that you take some simple protective measures.

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advises to seek shade when the ultraviolet rays are the most intense, i.e. between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., as well as to wear protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats, and to apply sunscreens with a Sun Protection Factor of at least 15. Read more about sun-safe bahaviors in the Public Resource Center of the AAD Web site. Other related information can be found in an article on "Thwarting Skin Cancer with Sun Sense" available on the Web site of the US Food and Drug Administration, on the "Choose Your Cover" Web page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as a Web page on "An Introduction to Skin Cancer" provided by

And don't forget to drink water, lots of water, particularly when you go on a long walk. You don't want to get dehydrated.

Take care.

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Here are some walking links and references

(I shall appreciate receiving information about relevant Web pages and other documents, in any language, regarding the meaning of walking. Please, write to me including the word "walking" in the subject field.)
"I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least--and it is commonly more than that--sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements." These words can be found in Henry David Thoreau's "Walking."
Al andar se hace camino
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
From "Cantares..." by Antonio Machado.
The contemplation of nature, its detailed observation, the quest to understand its phenomena and to perceive of oneself as part of the universe, are among the pleasures of walking. Stuart Kauffman's "At home in the universe" (published by Oxford University Press) thus, appropriately, starts off with a walking story. A marvellous three-volume guide to the exploration of physical phenomena in the outdoors, authored by Marcel Minnaert, was originally published in 1937 in The Netherlands with the title "De natuurkunde van 't vrije veld." It has been republished since that date various times by W. J. Thieme & Cie, Zutphen. Interested walkers and explorers of nature, able to understand the Dutch language, may want to locate a copy. An English translation of the fifth edition of the first of the three volumes was published in 1993 by Springer Verlag with the title "Light and color in the outdoors" Also of interest is a current "natuurkunde.van.het.vrije.veld" home page (use the back button on your browser to return to this page). Since the above information was included on this Web page, I was recently (January 28, 2004) made aware by Pierre Hoonhout of the Department of Economics at University College London, that a more affordable English translation of the first volume of Minnaerts's work exists, published in the series of Dover Books on Earth Sciences, with the title "The nature of light and color in the open air."
"Walking is also an ambulation of mind." (Gretel Ehrlich, novelist, poet, and essayist [b. 1946])
Maureen Rogers, Tallahassee, Florida, writes:
The long pilgrimage: The life and teaching of the Shivapuri Baba by J. G. Bennett is the story of an Indian, the Shivapuri Baba, who lived to be 137 years of age. It is not a book about walking but about the philosophy of a saint who took a long walk, mile- and time-wise. The Shivapuri Baba, born in 1826, walked the European continent, from India, all the way to Lake Titicaca. Of course he took an ocean liner to cross the waters. He continued westward, returning to India 40 years later. He tells J.G. Bennett about some of his meetings during the walk, often with state leaders, including Queen Victoria who insisted that the Shivapuri stay in England while she was alive. He did till she died in 1901. The pages about their 18 meetings were torn from the Queen's journals so others would not learn about them. It has been several years since I read Bennett's book, but I recall that his writing is great and quite exciting because he was not merely curious; he was on a quest for a spiritual teacher and the intensity of his search fuels his writing. The Shivapuri's walk, which began in 1875, was financed by jewels left to him by his grandfather. The walk was a duty to honor a promise to his grandfather and to complete his spiritual journey. There are a couple of pictures in the book, one showing his beautiful and radiant form at 112 years of age.
There are ample references to walking - or rather wandering - in Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) work, such as the "Wanderer Fantasie" and the cycle of Lieder "Die schöne Müllerin." Following is the text, by Wilhelm Müller (1797-1828), on which Schubert based his Lied "Das Wandern." It is part of the above cycle "Die schöne Müllerin." A translation of the German text in English and Spanish can be found at
Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust,
Das Wandern!
Das muß ein schlechter Müller sein,
Dem niemals fiel das Wandern ein,
Das Wandern.
Vom Wasser haben wir's gelernt,
Vom Wasser!
Das hat nicht Rast bei Tag und Nacht,
Ist stets auf Wanderschaft bedacht,
Das Wasser.
Das sehn wir auch den Rädern ab,
Den Rädern!
Die gar nicht gerne stille stehn,
Die sich mein Tag nicht müde drehn,
Die Räder.
Die Steine selbst, so schwer sie sind,
Die Steine!
Sie tanzen mit den muntern Reihn
Und wollen gar noch schneller sein,
Die Steine.
O Wandern, Wandern, meine Lust,
O Wandern!
Herr Meister und Frau Meisterin,
Laßt mich in Frieden weiterziehn
Und wandern.
Jay Cross form Berkeley, California, drew my attention to, and kindly sent me his copy of:
Wanderlust: A history of walking by Rebecca Solnit, published by Penguin Books (2000).
This is how the book begins:
Where does it start? Muscles tense. One leg a pillar, holding the body upright between the earth and sky. The other a pendulum, swinging from behind. Heel touches down. The whole weight of the body rolls forward onto the ball of the foot. The big toe pushes off, and the delicately balanced weight of the body shifts again. The legs reverse position. It starts with a step and then another step and then another that add up like taps on a drum to a rhythm, the rhythm of walking. The most obvious and the most obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.
Not a long distance, perhaps (a mere 65 km), but a significant one in terms of the impact of walking it. In 1705, German composer Johann Sebastian Bach walked from Armstadt to Lübeck and back. Musicologist and historian Gilles Cantagrel writes how this journey changed Bach's outlook on life and on what he wanted to achieve. Bach, "aware of the shortcomings in his upbringing," undertook this journey across Northern Germany to spend some three months in the presence of Dietrich Buxtehude, whom Bach admired. Nothing would any longer be the same after he completed the trip.
Walking and neurodegenerative disease
It has long been known that walking is good for people's physical health. That it has similarly beneficial effects for people's mental health may appear less obvious an assumption. However, a study by Robert D. Abbott, PhD; Lon R. White, MD; G. Webster Ross, MD; Kamal H. Masaki, MD; J. David Curb, MD; Helen Petrovitch, MD on Walking and Dementia in Physically Capable Elderly Men published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA. 2004;292:1447-1453) concludes that "Findings suggest that walking is associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Promoting active lifestyles in physically capable men could help late-life cognitive function" [my emphasis, JV]. Another study (JAMA. 2004;292:1454-1461), by Jennifer Weuve, ScD; Jae Hee Kang, ScD; JoAnn E. Manson, MD; Monique M. B. Breteler, MD; James H. Ware, PhD; Francine Grodstein, ScD, on Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women comes to the conclusion that "Long-term regular physical activity, including walking, is associated with significantly better cognitive function and less cognitive decline in older women" [my emphasis, JV]. Walking just a couple of kilometers a day may well make a crucial difference for the physical and mental well-being of elderly people.
Similar findings are reproted in Volume 144 Issue 2 of 17 January 2006 of the Annals of Internal Medicine in a study by Eric Larson and co-authors Wang, Bowen, McCormick, Teri, Crane, and Kukull with the title Exercise is associated with reduced risk for incident dementia among persons 65 years of age and older. This study was discussed in NPR's Science Friday broadcast on January 27, 2006. A podcast of the program is available here.
Walking as a metaphor for human improvement
When I started to study playing the piano, my teacher used a book by Petri. I didn't realize at the time - I must have been seven or eight years old - that Egon Petri was one of the great pianists of the twentieth century. It was therefore an interesting surprise to come across Petri and the petriots again while searching the Workd Wide Web for something unrelated. I was even more surprised to find on the Web site in question the following reference to walking in connection with Petri's piano pedagogy.
An article in The American Music Teacher in 1939 quoted Petri regarding practice:
A pedestrian who was on his way to Athens met a peasant working by the roadside and asked him "How far is it to Athens?" The peasant replied, "Walk!" The man said "I know I have to walk, but tell me how long will it take me to get there?" The peasant repeated, "Walk!" When the third inquiry drew forth the same information, the traveler, giving the peasant up as a hopeless idiot, walked away with great strides. After a few seconds the peasant called out: "Half an hour!" Greatly surprised, the man turned back and said: "Why did you not tell me that at once?" Whereupon the peasant replied, "How could I tell you before I saw how you walked?" So what would be the use of telling a pupil how long to practice without knowing how he practiced? You can't help being your own teacher and pupil when you practice. If you learn quickly and incorrectly, that's bad. If you learn quickly and correctly, that's good. If you learn slowly and correctly, that is also good. But is you learn slowly and incorrectly, that's the worst. If you do the exercises right, you don't need them. If you do them wrong, they may do you harm.
Walking the unseen way
Another metaphorical reference to walking can be found in the work of Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote in 1916 in Fruit-Gathering:
Where roads are made I lose my way.
In the wide water, in the blue sky there is no line of a track.
The pathway is hidden by the birds' wings, by the star-fires, by the flowers of the wayfaring seasons.
And I ask my heart if its blood carries the wisdom of the unseen way.

(The full text of Fruit-Gathering can be found at

Learning to walk
To learn to walk is one of our earliest instincts. Yet, in an ever-faster world of time-saving technology and high-speed travel, fewer and fewer people do it on a routine basis. Do we need to learn to walk again?
Laura Durnford of Radio Netherlands raised the above question on a Web page, which is no longer available, on Learning to Walk developed in conjunction with Laura's radio documentary The Walker. The program included excerpts from an interview made with me on May 13, 2005, in the National Park 'Hoge Veluwe' in The Netherlands The documentary was broadcast on February 22, 24 and 25, 2006.
A downloadable MP3 file of The Walker (© Radio Netherlands) is available here.
E jamais termina meu caminhar
Here is how the idea of 'wandering' (andança) is brought to life in a beautiful Brazilian song, brought to my attention by Dalva Padilha in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.
(Composição: Edmundo Souto, Danilo Caymmi e Paulinho Tapajós)
Vim tanta areia andei
Da lua cheia eu sei
Uma saudade imensa
Vagando em verso eu vim
Vestido de cetim
Na mão direita rosas vou levar
Olha a lua mansa
A se derramar
Ao luar descansa
Meu caminhar
Meu olhar de festa se fez feliz
Lembrando a seresta que um dia eu fiz
Já me fiz a guerra
Por não saber
Que esta terra encerra
Meu bem querer
E jamais termina meu caminhar
Só o amor me ensina
Onde vou chegar
Rodei de roda andei
Dança da moda eu sei
Cansei de ser sozinha
Verso encantado usei
Meu namorado é rei
Nas lendas do caminho
Onde andei
No passo da estrada
Só faço andar
Tenho o meu amado a me acompanhar
Vim de longe léguas
Cantando eu vim
Vou não faça tréguas
Sou mesmo assim
Me leva amor
Me leva amor
Por onde for quero ser seu par
Einfach verschwinden. Losgehen.Vier bis fünf Kilometer in der Stunde zu Fuss zurücklegen. Mal weniger, mal mehr, je nach Gelände und Witterung. Ziele, Routen, Pausen selber wählen. Richtungen ändern. Vom Weg abweichen. Im weglosen gehen. Souverän über Raum und Zeit verfügen. Gehen und tragen. Alles, was man braucht, im Rucksack bei sich haben. Sich etwas zumuten. Bis hart an die eigene Grenze gehen. Blickachsen, Hörräume, Duftfelder wahrnehmen und immer wieder pendeln: zur Innenschau, der Zweisprache mit sich selbst, dem Hören auf die innere Stimme: Essenz des Wanderns . . .
Thus begins Ulrich Grober's "Vom Wandern: Neue Wege zu einer alten Kunst," published in 2006 by Zweitausendeins in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The book was brought to my attention by Walter Erdelen, former Assistant Director-General for Science at UNESCO. Grober is best known for his cultural history of the concept of sustainability, laid down in "Die Entdeckung der Nachhaltigkeit: Kulturgeschichte eines Begriffs," published in 2010 by Verlag Antje Kunstmann, München, Germany. An English translation of the latter work is available as a Kindle Edition and is scheduled to appear in print under the title "Sustainability: A cultural history."

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