Walking: The Human Condition

WalkWhen early humans stood erect over the African savannah, our improved vantage point gave more than views of prey and predator, berry bush and honeybee hive, nut tree and watering hole; we saw possibilities. We saw the horizon stretching out until what appeared to be infinity. We saw sunsets and sunrises, mountains and valleys, stars and constellations and galaxies. The world grew. And we viewed this massive world with a childlike curiosity that made just looking insufficient. We had to touch, visit, and experience it.

So we walked.

Some of us walked north from our East African homelands across the Levantine corridor to reach the Near East (or what became the Fertile Crescent before agriculture stripped it bare). From there, humans walked deeper into the new land, some heading south into the Indian subcontinent, others exploring the far reaches of the east or the steppes of central Asia and on into Europe.

Other African groups spread south and west across the rest of the continent or, taking advantage of low water levels, crossed the Red Sea at the Horn of Africa, alternately walking and perhaps rafting along Asia’s southern coastline until Indonesia and, eventually, Australia.

And at some point, humans walked clear across the Arctic land bridge to North America. A few of us settled in that far north, happy with walrus and seal and salmon. Others kept walking, making their way through Canada, America, and down on into Latin America.

Walking was freedom. There was always something else just around the bend, a new life, a new beginning, new plants and animals to eat (and eventually tame). If things got awkward or a conflict arose within a group, people could always walk away. There were no borders or boundaries to respect, no real estate to guard. Life wasn’t exactly easy or idyllic, but we had options. We always had a way out if we were willing to walk.

And when we’d stay and explore an area, ingratiate ourselves with the new surroundings, get comfortable – we didn’t stop walking. We didn’t hunker down, lay down roots, confine ourselves to a plot of land, and get fat. After all, we were hunter gatherers, largely nomadic, who went where the food went and grew.


We walked short distances. A few hundred yards to gather kindling and wood for the morning fire. We walked a mile at midday to fetch water and maybe gather some nuts and tubers. We walked to the watering hole to wait for thirsty game; if successful, we walked back to camp carrying our prize. If modern foragers like the Ache or Hadza are any indication (PDF), we walked anywhere from 6 to 16 kilometers on an average day. And our short distance walking was spread throughout the day, not clumped together in a single uninterrupted session on the treadmill after work.

We walked under load. We carried armfuls and baskets and skins of tubers, nuts, fruits, and the rare honeycomb. We hauled butchered animal parts and piles of shellfish, small game and fish. We carried children. Shopping carts, strollers, and delivery services were unavailable.

We walked on uneven terrain. The natural world isn’t flat and linear and made of concrete. There are gradations. Roots and rocks jut out and must be avoided or surmounted. Every step is different than the last, and this makes walking on uneven terrain far more energetically demanding than walking on flat terrain, and far better at improving and maintaining balance, physical fitness, and metabolic health.

We walked kind of funny, unlike any other bipedal animal, most of whom have tails to counterbalance. We stand atop two relatively small feet and we’re tall, so we’re constantly teetering to one side or the other and making infinitesimally small corrections to stay upright that we don’t even notice we’re making. Walking is falling forward and swinging a leg out to catch ourselves before we faceplant. It’s most evident in babies who have mastered the “falling” part without figuring out the “swing your leg out” part. But we all do it – athletes, hikers, mallrats, seniors. If we’re walking, we’re falling and catching ourselves.

And yet as silly as it sounds, this funny way of walking worked for us. So well that constant, frequent walking and humanhood are inseparable. One and the same. Our genome has developed in the context of frequent walking. To be human is to walk:

We’re bipedal. We have two free hands to carry supplies, tools, food, water, weapons as we walk; we have opposable thumbs and brains of sufficient capability to fashion packs, ropes, lashes for carrying, pulling, dragging even more supplies, tools, food, water, weapons along.

We’re upright and relatively hairless. The sun hits us at an angle rather than directly head-on, keeping us cooler than a quadruped whose back is fully exposed. We also thermoregulate by sweating through glands that line our skin’s surface. Improved thermoregulation lets us walk greater distances without overheating.

We’re heel-strikers. Aside from bears and great apes, every other animal walks on its toes. Humans lead with the heel and roll to the toes when we walk, maximizing our walking economy and allowing us to cover great distances without getting winded or expending much energy.

This perfect storm of anatomy, anthropometry, and biology made us obligate walkers so that even as food sources changed, as stalks of wheat and fences shot up around us, as nomadism gave way to agrarianism gave way to urbanism, humans used controlled falling as our primary mode of transportation. Neolithic farmers walked. Medieval peasants walked. Mayan warriors walked. Slaves, monks, artisans, fish mongers, cobblers, Union soldiers all walked. Victorian-era laborers walked an average of six miles a day. Modern Amish, a decent proxy for pre-industrial agrarian people, still walk nearly 15,000 steps (females aged 18-75) and 19,000 steps (males aged 18-75) per day (PDF). We have to walk.

It’s only in the information age – this world of Amazon same day deliveries and digital libraries in our pockets and car-dependent suburban sprawl and obese toddlers and anti-sitting campaigns – that we’ve stopped walking. But the need to walk has never left.

The human story is a story of constant movement, of progress, of yearning and seeking and exploring. Underneath all that is the simple physical act of putting one foot in front of the other. Without the controlled falling, the other stuff doesn’t matter so much or work so well.

Henry David Thoreau couldn’t “preserve [his] health and spirits” without spending “four hours a day at least – and commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” He is not alone. We can’t all achieve that level of sauntering, but I’m certain we can do a whole lot better than the amount we currently engage in. Those walking genes, those urges to explore remain within us. We should honor, respect, and indulge them.

I’d tell you to go for a walk or to take a hike, but that’s not good enough. Go for walks. Take hikes, as many as you can squeeze in. Continue the human story.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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61 thoughts on “Walking: The Human Condition”

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  1. Nice Post….Great interview with John Lee Dumas (“Entrepreneur on Fire”) as well. Definitely subscribing to this blog…THANKS!!

  2. Thanks for the interesting post! Our ancestors make me feel so guilty if I even so much as think about moaning that I’ve been on my feet all day.

    1. Definitely know what you mean… bad especially when I read this at work! I start standing up and down and find an excuse for a coffee/bathroom break.

  3. This article could also have been titled “A Brief History of the Primal Movement” – just like yesterday.

  4. Wow, what a love story! <3

    I totaly feel the need to just walk a lot of times. And on times when I don't feel the need, but feel "not right", just taking a walk changes "the world" for me.

  5. Really enjoyed this post. I try to walk an hour a day during lunch. Helps clear the brain and refresh the body after standing at a computer all morning.

    1. I really love that you say “after standing at a desk all day.” I am currently working with my employer to get a stand-up work station. I am really hoping they will help in providing this for me. After starting a desk job a year ago, I am starting to feel completely miserable sitting down all day. Great post Mark!

      1. You don’t have to wait until your boss buys a stand up desk. I use boxes to elevate my computer and keyboard and always stand. I am 80 years old.

  6. Another simple topic made amazing! I never considered the upright position to lessen sun exposure or that we’re the only critters who don’t walk on our toes.

    1. Many cactus grow in an upright postion to reduce heat/sun exposure…never thought about humans until now!

  7. Our nature deficiency is at the root of so many health problems, mainly a sense of fulfillment along with anxiety and depression.

    When I worked in a 4,000 acre park spending 35 hours a week or more in or around the forest, I never had anxiety or a sense of depression about the state of the world.

    Now that I work mostly on the computer, I’ve noticed a big difference in my mindset and capability of handling anxiety and other situations.. I have to force myself back into the woods as much as possible to remedy this unfortunate situation.

    Nature is medicine–confirmed.

  8. Walking is the best thing for me, these days! 🙂

    The land bridge theory has some competition in recent years. Seems that there were watercraft involved, if archeology is being interpreted correctly.

  9. Bravo!

    I find that walking is under-appreciated and underestimated in current times. It’s not good enough to qualify as “real” exercise when, in fact, it’s THE foundation of human movement.

  10. I want to do more hiking. I love the idea of walking on different terrains and I think it’s so great for our brains as well as our bodies.

    1. I agree. I have started implementing hikes into my weight loss program. I have been reading all of the posts about walking and after reading yesterdays I went for a nice 2 mile hike after work. Plan on doing the same tonight.

  11. Great post !! I learned walking from my Grandmother as a child. I lived with my grandparents while growing up and they only had one car and one licensed driver, my grandfather. My grandmother walked everywhere, work, store, hair salon, you name it. She’d carry a bag of groceries and me back home sometimes. She’d easily walk 6+ miles per day most of the time with me in tow. I could never keep up with her as a kid, but as I got older we’d walk together. Now, people either complain or complement me, they can’t keep up. Seems my easy pace is about 4mph from what I’ve clocked. Walking is my “sport”. I love it – city or country doesn’t matter. I enjoy noisy city streets just as much as the solitude of the desert. When I walk I always think of my grandmother and how lucky and physically capable she was. I’m going to carry that on.

  12. After I finished reading this article, I closed my laptop and went out for a 30-minute stroll through the absolutely beautiful Rittenhouse Square section of Philadelphia. Wonderful for body and soul! Thanks, Mark!

  13. Love walking so much! Love this post.

    We’ve been in New York City for the last week and a half and have walked everywhere… no subway or cab for us! We’ve been walking about 16k – 25k steps a day. So much fun!

  14. Before work I hike 40 minutes every morning in the forest outside my Maine home. It fosters a true sense of joy inside me.

  15. Funny, I never thought of walking as “falling forward”. Which, when you think about, requires some level of trust in yourself.

  16. For those who don’t have an opportunity to walk as much as desired, I recommend parking as far away as possible and enjoy every step 🙂

  17. It is in respect to evidence-based medicine to say that sedentary lifestyle is a giant health risk from macroscopic (osteoporosis, slipped discs) to molecular level (inflammatory cytokines). I hope in the near future the anti-sitting campaign will get as widespread as the anti-smoking campaign.

  18. Luckily Thoreau’s mom did his laundry and made him pie so he had plenty of time to stroll!

  19. I walked to work for years and walked some more for pleasure. In recent years I walk the dogs a couple miles daily and more on hikes. Unfortunately due to a pronated foot posture and years of jamming the feet in windsurf straps both my big toe joints are now so enlarged with degenerative arthritis that I have almost no upward range of motion and they have become painful. Not much cartilage left. The doctor says he can remove the entire joint (Keller technique) or try to reposition the bones to increase motion (Waterman Green). I am concerned I could be left worse off or diminished in sports I currently enjoy. If anyone has any experience or recommendations with this issue I would be interested to hear of it, thanks.

    1. Yes, there may very well be hope for you! Google Katy Bowmen, go to her website katysays.com, and start with her foot book. She is a biomechanist, and her work is great!

  20. Three years in, I get this.

    Used to be, if I didn’t feel quite right, I’d retreat to the forest. I’d feel “better” after a hike.

    Now I realize, modern urban culture makes me feel “worse.” The hike is a return to the norm.

    When I can’t make it to the (relative) wilderness, I’ll still wander around quiet neighborhoods, usually with an audiobook or forest sounds playing, unless I can get someone to join me — then we inevitably start to share stories, and I’ve noticed they’re more interesting, maybe more open-minded, stories than I hear from people who’ve been sitting still most of the day.

  21. (or what became the Fertile Crescent before agriculture stripped it bare)…Cue the American breadbasket.

  22. A huge highlight of my day is my daily walk! There’s tons to explore, geocaches to find everywhere (try geocaching if you haven’t – it’s a blast!), sun to soak in, time to ponder… Honestly I feel it’s the most beneficial exercise I do! Loved this post today… thanks Mark

  23. An overweight neighbor of my elderly mother expressed concern to my sister that she would see my mom walking by her house everyday. My sister was confused for a moment until she realized that the neighbor thought something was wrong because my mom walked everywhere and had no car transportation.

    My sister assured the neighbor that all was okay. We are a family of walkers. An alien thought to the neighbor, I suppose.

  24. I agree about walking under heavy loads as well as walking for short distances. Love your work Mark. There can be no greater exercise for mankind than the good ol’ fashioned walk!

  25. We know about Thoreau, but you forgot about Lou Reed. “Hey baby, take a walk on the wild side”…

  26. I was just looking at a Smithsonian article on the evolution of bipedalism. There appears to be a vast difference of opinion from there to here.

  27. We walked on uneven terrain…

    Reminds me of my cousin. He grew up for the first 6 years of his life in a cabin in the bush. Learned to walk on the uneven terrain of the forest. When he was little and his parents brought him into town, he would constantly trip on the flat, paved ground!

  28. I’m lucky enough to live within 5 km of my workplace, so I walk to (or from) work every day. I walk as much as possible.
    It de-stresses me, allows me to catch-up on my favourite podcasts and get some outdoors time. It’s especially lovely at this time of year (Southern Hemisphere), as we approach spring time and the mornings are lighter earlier.
    I feel for people who live in the suburbs with no footpaths, where walking is seen as weird and you have to drive everywhere. It seems so restricted and penned in.

  29. I love your illustrative way of writing. This article made me smile (and giggle) when I came upon “If we’re walking, we’re falling and catching ourselves.” Try to imagine the above and you will too!

    If I don’t run or sprint (I thought it was time but my stress fracture is still not 100%), I walk and when I do, I normally clock around 10K straight. Otherwise, I walk to the farmers market, to the park, beach you name it… It relaxes me, keep me trim and in shape and gives me a chance to view the surrounding from a vantage point that’s unmatched to anything else; well – maybe not in-compare to looking down when jumping from an airplane or being on top of a mountain. And as often happens, walking allows me to “run” into interesting people.

  30. Mark, I’m surprised at you! You know Katy Bowman, perhaps you’ve seen or read her new book “Move Your DNA”? I’m a certified Restorative Exercise Specialist™ and Katy is my teacher. This quote from above:
    “Walking is falling forward and swinging a leg out to catch ourselves before we faceplant. It’s most evident in babies who have mastered the “falling” part without figuring out the “swing your leg out” part.”
    Is incorrect. Or somewhat incorrect. It’s true that most people in our culture are falling forward and catching themselves, but we are chair dwelling, shoe wearing creatures and our gait pattern has suffered accordingly. A true, reflex driven gait pattern is posteriorly driven (not hip flexion as in your quote). If you watch babies learn to walk, they fall back onto their bums, not on their faces! (This is usually followed by an enviable squat back up to standing, repeat as necessary.)

    1. Thank you Carol!!! I am glad that I spotted your comment before posting the exact same thing. Katy Bowman is presenting at the upcoming PrimalCon too! The posterior chain simply does not get the recognition it deserves in our contemporary society, perhaps because we smash it to smithereens with chairs all the day long.

    2. Thanks for bringing this up. I used to “fall forward” but thanks to Katy I propel forward with my glutes and land mid foot. My life long back pain is gone and my life is much improved.

  31. So I would agree to all of this except the heel striking part….as long as we are in shoes of any kind (regretably even vibrams) one will heel strike because of the protection. But if you have spent any time walking or running barefoot, its been my experience that you forefoot strike still. Its the only way to walk gently enough to correct when encountering sharp rocks, gravel, thorns, and the like, and when you run barefoot you will definitely forefoot strike, if you don’t you pay for it very very quickly. other than that, yep, go for walks, as often as possible, and take off the shoes 🙂

    1. Interesting to think whether when running barefoot (not so much walking) but a bit of a heel strike may be sore and you may pay for it, but it may also be faster. If you use your brain to avoid danger, generally, and only run like the clappers to get away from immediate danger, what is a bit of paying for it if you don’t die. I suppose what I am saying is, is that animals may ‘pay’ for running like we would (they would obviously be more used to it) but how do we know they are or aren’t in pain. I am definitely not arguing with you, I avoid most forms of running, especially as one of my heels has 15mm missing off the back and bottom where it did not form properly from a babyhood infection. Puts my pelvis out of line.

    2. Matthew – I wholly agree with you. I was at the beach the other day and watched an African family (from Africa) with 4 kids ranging from a 2 year old to about 8 years old, walking and running about with disregards to the hot sand. All of them without exceptions, bounced on their mid to forefoot as naturally as can be, and It appeared, that they were accustomed to it from birth. But not only them – most kids walk this way at young age, until shoes claim the better part of them.

      One way to combat the habit of heel striking (in my humble opinion), is to switch to low cut shoes with wide toe box, use sandals (Huaraches my favorite these days) and minimalist shoes and walk barefoot whenever possible. I have a collection of supple ferragamo shoes (like new) and the like collecting dust in the closets…..I wonder if can find a buyer for them?? I certainly can’t get my feet in them anymore, as they they feel crammed.. (-:

    3. “We’re heel-strikers. Aside from bears and great apes, every other animal walks on its toes. Humans lead with the heel and roll to the toes when we walk, maximizing our walking economy and allowing us to cover great distances without getting winded or expending much energy.”

      I disagree. I think “modern” footwear and level/paved surfaces have turned us into heel-strikers.

      According to Seneca archaeologist, Arthur C. Parker, Native Americans (paleo-people extraordinaire) walked by striking first with the ball of the foot or with the entire sole of the foot.

      Prior to the arrival in Japan of Western customs and clothing in the late 19th century, the Japanese walked using a style known as “sliding feet”, in which the sole of the foot skimmed over the surface of the ground, as the knees remained soft, the hips low, and the torso more or less still. No heel-striking there either.

      Incidentally, because of their natural, efficient, and economical walking-style, 19th century Japanese soldiers had a hard time learning to march in the manner of European troops, whose style was developed to accommodate heavy, stiff-soled boots.

      The University of Utah study in the link was conducted on “27 volunteers, mostly athletes in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Each subject walked or ran three different ways, with each step either heel-first, ball-of-foot first with the heel a bit elevated or toes first with the heel even more elevated.”

      Isn’t it possible that the test subjects used less energy when they walked heel-first because that’s how they were used to walking! If the researchers had included natural ball-of-foot-first walkers, they probably would have found that the ball-first walkers used less energy when they walked ball-first than when they walked heel-first.

      The study may be useful in the context of modern European and American walking, but is much less so for Asian or African walking.

  32. “Walking is falling forward and swinging a leg out to catch ourselves before we faceplant” Whatever the message, whatever the opinion, you have to say Mark is a good writer. Off topic, but I have been meaning to say, if Mark or anyone else is listening and remembers the Magellan example, and as part of the ‘don’t believe everything you are told’ idea (eg food industry) the book 1421 says Magellan had Chinese maps? Ignore me, back to walking!

  33. Thoreau is such an inspiration. I still would like a community and not be a totally hermit though. I could walk to visit my neighbors

  34. Interesting article on Thoreau in Lewrockwell site, by Gary North
    Go to Lewrockwell site, look for


  35. Loved this read and have shared it with many already!

    My walking days started at a very young age and 50 years later is still the greater part of my exercise routine and my life. I have learned I can solve most issues or problems on a walk and it’s where my creative flows turn on, or as some call it, the downloads to creativity pour in. When I am fortunate enough that my walk is in the heart of nature I come back more rejuvenated then most who spend hundreds in a fitness centre – my rejuvenation was completely free.

    I’ve even outgrown a few of my fears about walking alone in nature and while there have been times I’ve questioned my sanity to be out there alone – I’ve never once questioned what I brought back from those courage-filled moments.

    Giving up running after 9 years of being a faithful runner was a gift to both my mind and my body. I am so happy I came back to walking because I enjoy it far more than running and it’s something that can be done almost anywhere. I never beat myself up for not walking like I often did with running and while running has it merits, walking, for me, is far more beneficial to my overall health. Walking 4, 6 8km daily is pretty much my best fix and little else in my life has ever been a better one.

  36. According to Mark and my Fitbit, stay-at-home mom equals Amish woman, at least in terms of steps per day!

  37. I aim for 10000 steps a day and usually do somewhere between 7500 and 14000. I listen to podcasts or the radio or walk and talk with a friend. Its so easy, just head out the door. Sometimes I just walk around the block to clear the cobwebs.

  38. Mark, I have a question, very important to me!

    I know you have said that your heart-rate shouldn’t go upper than 75 bpm when you do your daily walk.

    What I do is, I have to sit for long periods of time (I am a student) and I do a 5 mile walk in place, in front of the TV. It takes approximately an hour. It’s a brisk walk and my heart-rate goes up to 120, sometimes even higher.
    Does that make it unhealthy? I try to do this every day to catch up with my 10,000 steps a day!

    What do you think? It’s important you reply to me, because it’s basically the only good exercise I can do for now (not counting the squats).

    Please, answer me 🙂

    1. Oh, I am sorry, Mark! I misinterpreted you! You meant up to 75% of the maximum heart-rate!

      That means mine is generally well-fitted in the scheme 🙂

  39. I questioned the “heel to toe” comment too. From what I can remember, everything I have read on natural walking has referenced raised heels on modern footwear as “forcing” a heel to toe gate. I have been wearing flat soled shoes to work for over a year now and I normally go to a local Wal-Mart to walk on my lunch break (hey, it’s hot down here in the South!) I can definitely tell that my heels get sore if I start to use a heel to toe movement. I would definitely like to see some more information on this. Even after a year+ of walking in mostly flat soled shoes/vibrams I still feel like my foot is adjusting to the more mid/fore foot walking gait.

  40. Would that I could … achillies tendonitis / bone spur. So much conflicting advice – my natural “toe walking” seems to have shortened my outrageously tight calf muscles further and I was told to heel strike instead…and stop wearing flat, minimal shoes (which does ease the pain but doesn’t solve the problem). Sigh…

    1. read katy bowman’s bok every womans guide tofoot pain. Minimal shoes and barefoot is great, but you need corective excercises to get your body in the right shape to do so!

  41. Just take a walk and you will see how great is your environment. Walk for about 30 mins and you get your body exercised.

  42. This article touched me deeply. It reminds me of my late grandfather. He once told me that if we don’t walk, we will never gonna move and that will be the end of us. That’s why he picked himself up to walk (though it’s just few slow steps) stubbornly when his both legs are too weak to walk.

  43. I walk about an each day at the park, barefoot, listening to the radio on my earbuds. The barefoot part is the best part of it. And when I’m not walking I’m usually bouncing on my mini tramp, watching tv or listening to the radio. I feel like I need to constantly move or I start to atrophy.

  44. An old post but very interesting, however I disagree about us being heel-strikers!
    I believe this is a later adaptation and lazyness due to foot wear.
    When walking or running barefoot if you still heel strike then injury is looming around the next step! Opinions?

  45. Please, for the love of all that is holy, can we stop using the word “everyday” when we mean to say “every day”?!