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Ian O’Riordan: When it comes to sport, nothing beats a walk

Survey finds 37% of those actually active in sport put walking as a clear number one

Just when it felt like this annual lauding of sport season couldn’t get any more tedious or forlorn, suddenly something is so humbly recognised that it seems all is redeemed. And it maybe reminds us too what it’s all about in the first place.

There weren’t actually any prizes in this year’s Teneo Sports’ Sponsorship Index (TSSI), announced on Thursday, but the findings were nonetheless telling. Because along with such edifying matters as Ireland’s most admired sports star (Katie Taylor) and 2017’s most memorable sporting moment (Conor McGregor losing to Floyd Mayweather), when it comes to sporting participation, nothing beats going for a walk.

This may not be far off a similar survey which recently put exercise as the fastest growing sport in Ireland. But even in a so-called sports mad nation, not everyone wants to kick a ball or throw a punch. Most people do learn to walk before they can run, and yes some sports aren’t all about winning either.

The TSSI, now in its eighth year, is designed to gauge general sporting popularity, carried out among a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults, aged 18 to 65; a general survey of the public, in other words, not just another poll of sports fans.


So while we may claim soccer as our favourite sport, or at least 20 per cent of those surveyed did, those actually active in some sport put walking a clear number one – 37 per cent of those surveyed. In fact team sports didn’t come close, swimming the next most popular (19 per cent), followed by running (10 per cent).

Still not everyone would consider walking a sport, not in the competitive sense, but that would be missing the point. If sport is about promoting a healthy body and a healthy mind then no wonder walking is so popular, and maybe the increasingly unhealthy obsession with competitive sport has something to do with that too. Riding the Tour de France now seems fraught with illness or injury, rugby not that far behind.

The ease of access and entry of walking is part of the lure, and it’s an open season sport too. Especially at this time of year, with the possible exception of jumping in the Forty Foot, going for a walk on Christmas Day has largely replaced going to mass, even if that means driving somewhere first.

Solitary excercise

Walking could also be the last sport untainted by performance enhancing drugs – unless it’s actually a race, or you once trained with the Russians in Saransk. In fact there are no rules beyond putting one foot in front of the other, even if some of our modern devices try to pretend there’s more to it than that.

Best of all is the independence of walking. Indeed those who have been championing walking long before TSSI have always viewed it best served as a solitary exercise, preferably in some place of solitude. A bit like meditation, only in ambulatory mode.

To the founding fathers of walking such as John Muir, who always said the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness, or Henry David Thoreau, who never found any companion who was as companionable as solitude, this always made sense. As it did to John Keats, who wrote: "my solitude is my sublime... the roaring of the wind is my wife, and the stars through the window pane are my children".

Actually Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods, is essentially about going for one long walk – for two years and two months, to be exact – to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life". It's also one of those books that inspired a taste of the philosophy in every generation that followed, from Leo Tolstoy to Christopher McCandless, and our own wandering John Moriarty.

Another part of this modern popularity of walking – no more than swimming, running and cycling – might well be its creativeness. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Bob Dylan says his best lyrics have always come while moving, either walking, or else maybe on a bus, or a train. Same reason Brendan Kennelly was always seen walking around Dublin.

A recent article in the New Yorker suggested as much when it referenced a study at Stanford University, where tested students showed notably heightened creative abilities while walking. And better still when walking with nature.

The science is recognising the powers of walking in other ways too. One of the latest health terms in the US is “forest bathing” or taking a “forest shower”, essentially taking a walk in the forest and a loose translation of the Japanese shinrin-yoku, coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982.

The Washington Post actually reported this last year, to some mild derision, but on closer inspection, the Japanese know what they're on to: they've studied "forest bathing" for eight years and claim it can significantly improve physical and mental health. Not Thoreau's life, just a simple walk in the woods.

And so to the other point of this exercise. You don’t all have to live in the Dublin Mountains to appreciate one of the finest walks in the area is up and around Montpelier Hill, better known as the Hellfire Club. The view from the old shooting lodge overlooking the city goes beyond words – especially on Christmas Day – and you don’t have to be a dendrophile either to understand how it all syncs with the adjacent Massy’s Woods.

Plans by South Dublin County Council to build a €15m “interpretative centre”, turning some of those woods into a car park, are now with An Bord Pleanála, with January 8th the closing date for final submissions, before the decision on February 6th. It may not be a strictly sporting decision but it would be sad to see such a good walk spoiled.