Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

Health Benefits of Walking the Camino

A Long Walk to Health

After I walked the Camino in 2011, I was invited by various people and organisations to give talks about my experience of what it was like to make this walk along the Camino de Santiago, the 800 kilometre (500 mile) pilgrim trail in northern Spain. The journey took over six weeks as my son and I walked an average of 15 to 25 kilometres (10 to 15 miles) every day along this ancient track that wended its way from the Pyrenees mountains on Spain’s border with France to Santiago de Compostela near the western sea coast.

One question I have often been asked as a practising doctor is whether there are any medical benefits to such a long and arduous journey – to which query I respond with an emphatic ‘YES!”

In addition to the spiritual benefits of a walking pilgrimage, there certainly are medical benefits. These are two fold – beneficial effects on the Body as well as on the Mind.

Physically, one has the opportunity over four to six weeks to do all the preventive health activities that doctors constantly keep telling us make up the foundations of good health – things like exposure to fresh air and sunshine, eating no more calories than one can burn off by the day’s activity plus regular aerobic exercise which gets the heart, lungs, muscles and joints working as Nature intended them to do.

From a psychological point of view, one benefits because one can let go of all the trials and tribulations of everyday life and allow one’s ‘brain computer’ to defragment itself.

You can dispense with things like ‘to do’ lists, work schedules and palm pilot planners, slacken the hectic pace of 21st century life to the natural rhythm of human walking – and concentrate simply on walking at your own place, taking the time to savour the splendours of creation around you as well as enjpy the company of like-minded human beings

As a doctor I often have cause to tell my patients – particularly those with coronary heart disease or diabetes – that they would benefit from modifying their sedentary lifestyle and undertaking adequate physical exercise. The usual response is ‘But Doctor, I just don’t have enough TIME to exercise!”

I then gently point out to them that what they are really telling me is that although they have enough Time (since every one of us has 24 hours in a day) Exercise does not come up high enough in their list of priorities. Spending 24 hours a day creating wealth or writing research papers will only make you the richest or most famous man or woman in the cemetery!

Taking the time off my regular routine of seeing patients, teaching medical students and doing all the customary activities associated with a householder’s life was certainly good for my physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health (although it was not so good for my bank balance!). And doing the journey with my son – sharing the physical journey as well as the emotional and spiritual connection – was one of the best things I could have done.

For those who want to know whether a pilgrimage on foot is a good idea, my response is that while the journey gradually gets you to your destination, it certainly provides you with the opportunity of a Long Walk to Health!              

This is an amended version of my original article, specially written for American Pilgrims on the Camino on 12 July 2020                                                                                                      


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