Ageing With Attitude: Hugh O’Donovan signs lead to the road less travelled

Margaret Jennings hears about one man’s walk, just before his 60th birthday, from Mizen Head to Malin Head and what he learned about himself along the way.

WHEN it comes to talking the talk, Corkman Hugh O’Donovan also walks the walk, having spent most of last month on his daily trek by foot, from Mizen Head to Malin Head, mindfully embracing life, in anticipation of his 60th birthday later this year.

But the big six-o was only an excuse to put into action his ambition to walk the length of the country, so he could experience the mental and emotional benefits of putting one step in front of the other, sometimes alone, sometimes in company, letting each day unfold in an unplanned way.

We are regularly reminded how good walking is for us as we age, but by adopting a mindful approach — that is bringing a positive intention, focus and attitude — to stepping out, we reap even greater emotional benefits, allowing us to appreciate the present moment and our surroundings, says Hugh, who is a coaching psychologist.

“In developing the practise of mindfulness and mindful walking you will hopefully come to a better understanding of yourself. The answer is at your feet,” he says.

However, talking — sharing our story with others — is also part of the human process he says, and along his pilgrim-like journey, which took him just over 22 days, Hugh shared many conversations in pubs, coffee shops, hotels and in the homes of strangers, who took him in, which added to the richness of his experience.

“In life we sometimes try to control everything but it was the most wondrous experience to let the day unfold,” he says. But it was not all a bed of roses.

“The first few days my mind was negative and saying ‘what are you at?’ and ‘you will never be able to do this’. But by mindfully focussing on the job at hand, the next step effectively, and by bringing myself back into the now, as best I could, I started putting distance and days under my belt.”

In the modern world we spend so much time in our heads that we forget about our bodies, he says.

“In that sense my body was beginning to reject the whole notion of walking to Malin. It was sore, it was stiff but day by day seven and eight it started to catch up. After nine days, I began to motor and then it became effortless and the mind began to feel more positive. This is the way the brain and the nervous system and the body start to work together — the way they were originally intended to work, because up to 100 years ago all we ever did was walk and talk.”

At almost 60, Hugh is an inspiration to older people to be positive. “Anyone who feels ageing is a challenge can choose to change their attitude, to take on tasks that are beyond their own perceptions of themselves, even if it means just getting that walk in every day in a mindful way, noticing what’s around them.” He advises older people to “get out there, and get moving, talking, involved and interested to promote emotional, as well as physical fitness”.

“Once you stay at home you retreat into your own inner thinking and you’re prone to lots of error in that thinking — negative bias and that’s the reality of it.”

Sometimes you have to force yourself, he points out.

“There’s lots of stuff that holds us back. I know what it’s like to be held back. We have beliefs about ourselves — maybe we are not good enough, not fit enough, maybe not able to do it. A lot of attitude we have about ourselves is from early life and habituation, doing the same thing over and over, but you have to do something different, to look around and say ‘what have I not done that I could do?’ and to take up that challenge, no matter how you feel about the challenge and to see ‘what can I learn from all of this?’

With careers in the army, as a restaurant owner, and coaching psychologist already under his belt, Hugh has also written a book called Mindful Walking: Walk Your Way To Mental and Physical Well-Being, published in May.

What drives him, through life? “I don’t want to get to the end of the journey — when I draw my last breath — and be left wondering ‘what if I had done this or that’— that’s my motivation,” he says.

At the end of the day though, he says: “My major achievement in life is the relationships I have with my family and friends.”

* Hugh raised almost €2,000 on his walk for the mental health non-profit organisation MyMind.


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