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Terry Maguire discovers the joys of walking for mental and physical health and describes how he took the ad-hoc formation of a group of like-minded walkers in his stride

 I re-met ‘Moondog’ at my doctor’s surgery while collecting my cardiac-cocktail, the collection of medicines I take daily to ensure continued survival and possible longevity. These were prescribed following a heart-stent procedure — an event that, as I was exiting my 50s, made me sit up and re-examine my life; a life I had, up to this point, breezed through. Like most baby-boomers, life had just happened for me and it happened easily and enjoyably… mostly. Now, I realised for the first time that I was not indestructible after all and that insidious change, in the context of narrowing arteries, was happening as I breathed. My important arteries had furred-up to the point that one was now 95 per cent blocked, which meant walking up a slight hill proved uncomfortable. At first I ignored this but then, with some understanding of human physiology, I reasoned that the symptoms were angina and that I should get something done. 

The medical evidence is clear — exercise is better medicine than prescribed pills; we just need discipline and commitment. Sufficient exercise is more effective in reducing heart disease than BP and cholesterol reduction drugs; it reduces risk of developing type 2 diabetes and there are major benefits in improved mental health. Fitness is key in reducing the ageing process — we need to get fitter as we get older, allowing us to keep doing the things that are important to us, like visiting the toilet by ourselves.

Moondog was also at the GP collecting his cardiac-cocktail. Two years’ previous, he had problems breathing, went to the emergency department and from there was directly admitted to a cardiac ward, where he spent six weeks in bed waiting for a triple bypass. Slightly younger than I, we were the fag-end of the baby-boomers, those fortunate individuals born in the developed world between 1946 and 1961 and who had enjoyed unprecedented opportunity, personal freedom and reasonable incomes from the lives we were to live. Few other generations across the 100,000 years or so that Homo sapiens, with the unique quality of being conscious and aware, had existed were as free to live life as they wished. We had it all. Now, reality was kicking-in and sadly, we were being marched against our will into old age and decrepitude.

I say I “re-met” Moondog, as we had known each other for over 30 years, with a first encounter through children going to the same school. Wives shared school runs and kids shared snotty handkerchiefs. We socialised for a time at middle-class drunken dinner parties but that fizzled to zero as kids grew and individual responsibilities increased. We still had the same wives but knowing someone in the context of couples is very different and more restricting, especially when the wives have the unpredictability of a volcano.

We had, of course, bumped into each other over the years and on these occasions made the usual deflecting gestures on how we should get out for a night but, of course, we never did and I’m not sure we wanted to. We had done that, it had run its course; it had restrictions so we needed to move on. But this time was an opportunity to engage with Moondog on a different level. 

We agreed to meet up for a long walk. Never athletic, fit or sporty, walking was the ideal activity. It did not require any particular skill, was an activity we both could do moderately well and it seemed a golden opportunity to try out something new. If it didn’t work, nothing was lost. It worked so well, others wished to join our little group; now we number 10. It was never meant to be organised; it never is. Sometimes one walks with me, sometimes it’s nine. It might be for one hour, it might be for eight. 

Always different, always relaxing, always something to look forward to, never boring; it is escape. It could never be so walking alone. I had done enough of that over my life. Solitude has its benefits but walking with Moondog and other strangers is life-affirming. The walk is a mechanism for exploration; fellow walkers are channels through which I find purpose and meaning for my very bland and common life. We can only make sense of ourselves in the context of others.

So, thanks to a chance meeting with Moondog at the GP surgery, I am now a walker, I am fitter and healthier, I am happier and in September this year, six of us will tackle the Camino de Compestello De Santiago. λ