With all that’s going on in the world these days, and the ease with which bad news can dominate our lives, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed. But, there is something that many people can do to help improve both their mental and physical situation, and that is to get out for a walk.
Since March 2020, when the pandemic first began, I started making a concerted effort to incorporate walking into my life as much as possible, striving for at least five days a week.
When everything initially shut down in March 2020, walking was a great relief, as it gave me a chance to still see people, even if they were off in the distance, and the only way I could make out a smile was from their eyes, as their faces were all masked up. But, in those early days of the pandemic, even the simple head nod of a stranger was enough to make me feel more connected, less alone, and optimistic that we would get through this uncharted territory. I was working remotely from home, I didn’t realize how much I missed that human connection, and walking was one way to still enjoy some human interaction, in a safe and supportive way.
As the pandemic continued, however, my views on walking changed, as I began to enjoy it in so many other ways. For one, walking allows me to engage with so many different kinds of people, ranging from different ages, races, political beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds, especially when I walk in different neighborhoods from my own. This engagement may simply be a brief greeting, but sometimes it’s a more significant conversation about a concern in the local community. This exposure to a more diverse community has made me more cognizant that the media focus on the “fear of strangers” and “us against them” is often not based on truth, but fear-mongering for the sake of selling advertising or a particular point of view. So, one of the big benefits of walking is simply getting to know your community better, and feeling more connected to that community.
Another big benefit of walking is the money that is saved, especially if you drive a gasoline powered vehicle. For short distances, most vehicles do not get very decent gas mileage, so walking is a great substitute, especially if you can incorporate walking to places where you would normally drive, like to the store, out to eat, or simply going for a cup of coffee. When I first started walking more significantly in 2020, fuel prices were considerably lower, but I am very happy to have this walking habit ingrained in me now, as I consider the wonderful “fuel economy” my feet afford me!
Of course, walking is also good for the environment. For some people, the financial savings are a good motivator, but with all that is going on with our global climate, every little bit we do to reduce our carbon footprint is a positive step, or in this case many positive steps! It is true that walking somewhere generally takes more time than driving, but when you think about the reduced negative environmental impact your actions are having, that can motivate you to walk a little faster!
Another benefit of walking, is becoming more aware of the natural world around you. When I’m out walking, I notice the beauty of the trees, the vibrant colors and fragrances of flowers, the scampering squirrels in the trees, the butterflies, and all of the birds and their symphony of sounds; walking allows you to really take in Mother Nature’s movie and soundtrack!
In addition to all the beauty that I’ve observed while walking, I’ve also become much more aware of our significant litter problem here in California, and regularly pick up litter on my daily walks, and report areas of concern to the local authorities for additional servicing. If you drive everywhere, you often don’t notice the litter, or trees or plants that might need some care, but walking allows you to become much more community-focused and an advocate for the community.
For the cat lovers out there, another walking benefit is engaging with the local fabulous feline population. I find that evening time, generally close to sunset, is when most cats are out exploring. As we approach the hottest days of the year, evening time is often preferable for walking, as there is less risk of skin damage from excessive sun exposure, with the cats being another incentive for enjoying a sunset walk!
So many of us have a car, or easy access to a car but it’s important to acknowledge and appreciate that not everybody does. Walking around your own neighborhood helps you understand what it’s like for someone who has to rely on forms of transportation other than a car. You begin to notice where the pedestrian infrastructure is good or not so good, where sidewalks might need repair, or where sidewalks are not present, and how easy it is (or not) for someone to get to a bus stop. For this reason alone, walking is really encouraged as a way to become more understanding of the perspective of those who do not have a car, or cannot drive a car.
There are so many good reasons for walking, so why not check it out today?
Below are some of my suggestions for happy walking. Keep in mind that I’m not a doctor, not do I play one online or on my radio shows, so do check in with your doctor if you you have concerns, or if it’s been a while since you’ve last engaged in any serious physical activity.
Determine best time of day: this one is pretty subjective, but consider the time of year, how hot or cold the weather is, and your own visibility. For some people, sunrise walks might be a great way to start the day, but for others, a walk later in the day might be more appropriate. If you are prone to easily sun burning, like yours truly, you might want to try walking at a time of day when the ultraviolet exposure is not quite so high!
Choose walking clothing that works for you: If you will be walking at night or in reduced visibility conditions, make sure you’re wearing reflective clothing that will make it easy for drivers to see you. If you will be walking in cold temperatures think about additional clothing that might be needed to keep you warm. I am a minimalist at heart, so I walk year-round in a tank top, shorts, and barefoot. At some point I will be writing a blog about how I’ve acclimated myself to wearing little clothing. But ultimately, let your body be your guide! Walking barefoot makes me feel more connected, both physically and mentally, to the community I’m walking through. I simply love the tactile experience of feeling every thing under my bare feet; the differing textures and temperatures are a delight! But, this may not be the best option for you. For some of you, a good pair of walking shoes might be the motivator to get you out the door every day. Experiment with different clothing options, to identify what makes you feel best and keeps you walking long-term.
Decide if you need to bring along a backpack or bag: Some people, myself included, carry a backpack that contains reading and writing materials. It’s also a good option for carrying water, sunscreen, snacks, and a portable phone charger that can come in handy on those longer walks! And, it’s not a bad idea to also carry a first aid kit, if you plan on going for longer or more rigorous walks.
Identify where you would like to walk: Ideally, you can walk right out your door, and check out your neighborhood! But, this may not be realistic or appropriate for everyone. You might need to identify a safer place to walk, that will allow you to enjoy the walk without the risk of being possibly hit by a vehicle. Make sure the walking conditions are not potentially hazardous to your health!
Know when to take a day off: If the air quality index is hazardous, if you’re not feeling well, or feeling pain in your joints, legs or feet, these may be good indicators it’s appropriate to take the day off from walking. Again, let your body be your guide. I find I appreciate walking even more, when I take that occasional day off to do something else!
Decide if you want to track your walking miles: There are lots of smart phone apps that allow you to track how many steps or miles you walk each day. For some people, this is a fabulous encouragement and motivator, but for others it might make walking feel too much like work. Decide what works best for you.
Choose if you want to walk alone, with a friend, a pet, or some combination thereof: Walking can be a very introspective activity for some people, but others appreciate the social aspect of walking. Normally, I do a lot of walking on my own, and talk with others that I encounter during my walks, but sometimes my friends will join me for a walk as well, and that’s always a good change of pace, on multiple levels!
And, pace is something to consider as well. With your waking, are you hoping to get in some serious exercise, and break into a serious sweat? Or, are you looking for a more meandering, slow paced, adventure where you stop and smell the roses, figuratively and literally? The type of pace you hope to achieve can also guide whether you might be better off walking alone, or with similarly paced walking buddies. Or, you might mix it up, and have some days where you go at a faster pace, followed by days where you take it much more slowly.
All the best to you as you step out the door and explore this beautiful world, one step at a time!