John Daly: Giving yourself a break from the treadmill of life is a walk in the park
Like most people, I'm no great fan of hospitals. They are, like courtrooms and bankruptcy hearings, necessary institutions - but eminently better places to drop in as a visitor rather than overnight as a patient.
So it was last week when I called on my old friend Jean, who'd suffered an unexpected burst appendix. Not a life-threatening event, but serious enough to warrant an extended stay. Having had to do some serious soft talking to get past the super-efficient Filipino nurse on vigilant alert for the swine flu virus, I tip-toed into that peculiar otherworldly domain that is the standard hospital ward.
Moving from the organised chaos of the busy corridor, the eight-bed chamber was a virtually silent sanctuary of individual conditions - some in fearful contemplation of imminent operations, and others grounded in post-op immobility lest their stitches pop. After delivering a selection of the usual visiting platitudes - "the mild weather is turning nasty, Mrs Brown's Winnie did some mighty tango on 'Dancing With The Stars' and there's definitely trouble brewing between Meghan and Kate" - I slipped away to the lifts and the blissful, ordinary world outside.
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Exiting the building and thinking of the many ailing souls detained within, I decided to 'mitch off' like an errant 14-year-old from my waiting in-tray and instead roam freely on the pavements in celebration of my good health and well-being. Opting to traverse the city in a more or less straight line, but at a leisurely strolling pace peppered with frequent pauses to gaze upon humanity, I let the words of Thomas Aquinas be my guide: "If the sight of blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass has power to move you, if the simple things of nature have a message you understand - rejoice, for your soul is alive."
On that crisp January afternoon, sallying forth with mobile phone firmly on mute, I saw daffodils glisten after a midday shower and hornbeam leaves turn their backs to the gathering breeze - everyday visions stunning in their simplicity. A dog walker leading six different hounds - surely a positive sign of an upscaling economy - kept a tight rein on his bounding pack with one hand, while expertly rolling a ciggie with the other. Sipping my takeout coffee on a bench by the river, I eavesdropped on a Middle Eastern four-year-old reciting his alphabet, and a passing pre-teen Asian girl lecturing her mother on the edible virtues of avocados. I thought about my parents and what they'd make of this modern Ireland, only to hear again the echo of their oft-repeated mantra: "Carpe diem, Johnny boy, this is not a rehearsal." Over that ordinary day spent obeying the rambling instinct of my curious legs, I saw the city from a whole new angle and arrived home determined to henceforth take a 'walking duty' every month in gratitude for health and good fortune.
In a recent experiment at Stanford University, 12 undergraduate volunteers were equally divided between desks and treadmills, each group given similar conundrums requiring rapid solutions. Those walking on the treadmills came up with more 'novel and creative' answers 60pc quicker than those anchored to their desks.
But it's not just the mind that soars on a stroll - a study presented at the American Society for Clinical Oncology showed women with breast cancer who walked for 180 minutes a week were half as likely to die from the disease. Walking is a pro-brainer, and, in the end, it's the Garth Brooks lyric that probably makes the best case: "Stand straight, walk proud, have a little faith." Amen to that.