Some Sunnahs are well-known and established by Sacred Law for us to follow, such as eating with the right hand, starting actions with the basmalah or making du’a.
Others are termed by scholars as adaat or the habits of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). These were practices which were his (s.a.w.) personal preference and not necessarily legislated for us to follow; for example, eating cucumbers or wearing sandals.
However, ALL Sunnahs – even non-legislated habits which were simply the context of 1400 years ago – have blessings for those who follow out of love. Many Sahaba, such as Abdullah ibn Umar (r.a.) would follow even mundane Sunnahs such as bending below a branch of a tree out of pure love. For this, ‘the lover cannot be blamed’.
Interestingly though, many modern findings – discovered at the cost of thousands of dollars and using the brainiest of scientists – uncover optimal ways of living which happen to be Sunnahs. Fasting is just one of them.
One forgotten Sunnah was so intrinsic in the life of the Prophet (s.a.w.) and his Companions (r.a.), that there are very few explicit hadiths about the topic. It was not something the Muslims had to be commanded or even advised to do as it was something so common that our Ummah always had this superpower, century after century, until the 50-60 years.
This ‘superpower you never knew you had’, so described by Shane O’Mara, professor of brain research at Trinity College Dublin, is really something quite simple:
You’re either perking up with excitement, or sighing with the thought, ‘O yeah, walking. It’s supposed to be good for you.’
We all know it’s good for us. But do you know, really know, HOW GOOD it is for you?
The purpose of the remainder of this article is to give you such inspiring facts that you’ll be itching to get outside before you read the last word!
We Are Born to Move
Walking is an elemental habit that humans have performed for thousands of years.
By pure historical context, walking was an intrinsic part of the lives of all the prophets (peace be upon them). Our own beloved Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) must have been a tireless walker: as a shepherd when young, travelling house to house and surrounding hamlets/villages for dawah and the constant expeditions or battles.
It is estimated that the average Sahabi walked 15-20,000 steps a day.
Take away a sample of modern conveniences – such as modern transport, running water, toilets and fridges – and you’ll soon realize why ALL humans walked tremendously more than we do today.
This comes at a cost. Chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimers have never been higher (they virtually didn’t exist before).
Part of the reason for this is our extremely sedentary lifestyles. We wake up from comfortable, soft beds, drive seated in metal boxes to work; sit at a desk all day; drive seated some more back home; sit at chairs and tables for meals; slump into our sofas to while away the evening; back to bed. And the cycle continues.
We potentially could spend most of our day sitting!
No wonder the chair is said to be one of the most dangerous objects in your home!
10,000 steps too much? Look at babies
The modest target (by historical standards) of 10,000 steps a day is well-known. Most of us, though, myself included, find this almost an impossible feat.
This staggering fact help motivate me. Guess how many steps a toddler, learning how to walk, makes. Most parents guess 5000/day.
2000 steps, every HOUR!! Not to mention their resilience in falling down and getting up over and over again, bless them.
So you can see that our bodies are designed to move. We are not supposed to be sitting so much.
The good news is that you can get amazing benefits from just 5000 steps a day. Make that your first target.
But let’s dive into some more of these startling benefits.
Miracle-Gro for the Brain
Professor O’Mara reminds us that walking “has all sorts of wonderful effects in terms of assisting learning and memory”.
This is mainly due to its effect of producing essential brain-nourishing molecules such as the fabled BDNF.
Sitting for long periods actually slows the brain down; the minute you stand up, your cognitive engine starts speeding up.
If you feel like your brain’s in 1st gear, get up and walk and you can move to 4th and 5th!
Uplifts your Mood
High levels of cortisol in the blood increases stress and makes it hard to concentrate or work creatively.
Walking actually reduces cortisol production, increases creativity and is a more effective anti-depressant than standard drugs.
Dr Mithu Storoni has probably studied stress more than anyone in history. Over a period of years, she relentlessly researched over 1,000 published papers on stress and how to combat it.
One of her great findings was that we’ve always had little ‘blips of stress’ throughout the day. This was the same for our historic ancestors as it is for us today (arguably we have more frequent stressors now!).
However, in the past – due to walking/regular movement – our ancesors would have long ‘buffers of movement’ which would counteract their stresses. Stress blip + buffer of movement = back to normal levels.
In contrast, our modern, hectic lifestyles are filled with mini-stressors (what Dr Rangon Chatterjee calls MSDs – micro-stress doses) with little walking/movement to buffer them. Think back to the typical day example. Imagine the stresses of being stuck in traffic, getting alerts on your phone, flooded with emails as soon as you open your laptop, etc. And no space for walking to counteract!
No wonder modern Muslims are so stressed!
If we can create regular, short intervals of walking and movement throughout the day then we can reclaim these sanity-saving buffers.
Improve your Creativity & Problem Solving Skills
Creatives such as philosophers and writers have harnessed the incredible benefits of walking for centuries.
Luminaries as notable as Aristotle, Wordsworth, Nietzsche and Dickens all found inspiration AFTER long walks.
Sunnah and Science: Reverse Ageing
When interviewed for a podcast recently, Professor O’Mara shared details of a unique study in Chicago.
A sample of 70 year olds were divided into two groups. One was the control group which continued their sedentary lifestyle; the other walked around 1.5 miles just 3 times a week.
The results? The walking group improved their memory, attention and volume of brain matter as well as BDNF levels. Most startling was that when tested after a year, they performed like 68 year olds.
Walking literally gained these seniors years of their life back!
If that can happen at 70 then it’s never too late to start.
Need any More Convincing?
This article has focussed on the mental benefits of walking. As the icing on the cake, remember these proven physical benefits:
- Reduced risk of cancer
- Reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes
- Reduced risk of developing diabetes
- Reduced risk of Alzherimer’s
- Improved quality of life
What about spiritual?
Think of Musa’s (a.s.) solitary walk to Mount Sinai and our beloved Prophet’s (s.a.w.) trek up the Cave of Hira. Imagine the reflection and dhikr on these walks.
Some of my most spiritually uplifting memories are walking behind my shaykh, who actively continues this Sunnah of regularly walking and making dhikr.
There would be just a few students with me, and we would all remain in silence, rosaries in hand, making dhikr. I’ll never forget the immense presence (haal) of the shaykh which was palpable on those walks.
I’ve no doubt that students of the great scholars of our history – students who walked with Imam Ghazali, students who walked with Imam Shafi’I, students who walked with Imam Nawawi – felt similar experiences.
And of course, we all know how the Sahaba felt in the mere presence of Sayyidina Muhammad (s.a.w.).
Walking with the righteous benefits your soul.
Top Tips to Get Walking Now!
Normally, I wouldn’t write about walking until the spring. Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do, even in winter. And why wait 4 months for a superpower you can utilise right now!
#1 – Get a pedometer
It’s very difficult to track your steps and be sure that you are walking enough. They are also positively addictive and motivational. I recommend avoiding a smartphone and its radiation. Nakosite and Realalt are between £9-20 and highly rated on Amazon.
#2 – Embrace morning light
A treadmill misses out on the natural benefits of absorbing sunlight. I used to think that the cloudy weather of Britain would counteract any benefit. Wrong. Walking in cloudy weather gives 10,000 lux (unit of light) compared to a paltry 500 if we’re in a brightly lit indoor room. There’s no comparison.
And what’s the benefit? Well, first there is danger in not having enough. An observational study in 2014 following 30,000 women found that avoiding sunlight may be as damaging to health ‘in the same magnitude as being a smoker’. Potentially as bad as smoking!
But what motivates me is this second benefit. As Dr Chatterjee notes, exposure to morning sunlight ‘orchestrates all our body’s peripheral clocks and rhythms.’ This has the direct consequence of improving the quality of your sleep at night and setting your body clock up for success.
#3 – Walk in a group
Historically, humans have walked in groups. Mass migration from Africa is one of many examples where tribes would walk great distances together.
For us, it could be simple as making walking a family hobby every evening or a few times a week. Whenever I take little Murad out for a walk, he is bubbling with joy!
#4 – Set an alarm to go off every 25 minutes
To avoid the harms of sitting for prolonged periods when at work on a computer, this simple habit will remind you to get up and just move around a little. Even standing will improve your concentration and circulation!
#5 – Take the stairs
This takes discipline as buildings are designed to prioritize lifts or elevators. But make it a challenge to go primal and make a small tweak which could boost your brain for the next hour or so!
#6 – When you have a problem to solve, or your brain is feeling sluggish, go for a brisk walk
I now advise all my high school students to go for a walk before any exam. It’s proven to improve results!
If you have a complex project or task to plan, take a leaf from famous philosophers and go on a brisk 10-15 minute walk first. Professor O’Mara does this himself (even taking a Dictaphone) and routinely gets creative solutions
#7 – If driving or using public transport, get off or park 10 minutes walk from your destination
This is a great hack as you can weave it into your existing schedule. No need to go to the gym; no need to force yourself out of your house. You’re already driving to the masjid. You’re already getting the Tube. You’re already driving to the supermarket. How hard would it be to park one ‘stop’ earlier and walk that extra distance?
As you’re neatly inserting it into your existing schedule, this is the most time-efficient way possible to add walking to your routine.
So there you have it. Walking is easy, cheap and requires no special room, equipment or gym. You don’t need to stretch and you don’t need any training.
Tushar is a Certified High Performance Coach and Leader in Islamic Time Management who specializes in helping busy Muslim professionals. to overcome overwhelm and achieve clarity, organisation and progress across all areas of life. He has featured on Islam Channel, The Muslim CEO Show, ProductiveMuslim.com and SeekersGuidance.org. To learn more about Islamic Time Management, visit his website which is listed below.