I've been walking quite a bit lately — maybe you have too. It's more like rambling, really, in the English novel sense of the word, except instead of meadows and oak trees, I'm dwarfed by western red cedars and mobbed by ferns. (I live on an island on Puget Sound near Seattle.)
I simply set out from my house, sometimes with a time in mind, sometimes not. I take my phone, sometimes talking with faraway friends, or listening to podcasts in one ear, keeping the other open for birdsong, wind through the trees, and the drone of a car or the rhythmic pace another person's tread. Sometimes I don't listen to anything, and fret. I always return home feeling much, much better.
Before coronavirus, I often exercised outside in the same places. I went for runs, and I would walk while warming up or cooling down.
Before coronavirus, I didn't just leave my house on foot and walk around, sort of purposeless, unless I had something that was really troubling me. Now I crave it.
I have walked for 90 minutes or two or more hours at a time since the coronavirus lockdowns began.
Welcome to walking (like you've never walked before)
I'm far from the only one. Plenty of walkers — and nonwalkers — have found solace in putting one foot in front of the other. In fact, it's people who previously never walked much who are posting some of the most beautiful odes to walking online.
So I went for my daily walk. Discovered all this within half mile of home I didn't know existed. If we learn one thing from this horrid virus its look at nature. Get out walk explore and enjoy. @WildSheffield #nature #walking pic.twitter.com/1hw7TmtH6L— Caz Cutts (@CazCutts1) March 24, 2020
Caz Cutts accompanies a lovely photo grid filled with chickens, flowers, daffodils and streams with: "So I went for my daily walk. Discovered all this within half mile of home I didn't know existed. If we learn one thing from this horrid virus its look at nature. Get out walk explore and enjoy."
Some people have even gotten off the beaten path, as Matt Dean wrote about his unconventional walk following a stream.
Yes, walking is good exercise, but people have long perambulated in order to think, too. "Philosophers, poets, scientists — so much of our common intellectual and artistic heritage is tied to people walking. The list is endless — off the top of my head, I would say Kierkegaard in Copenhagen, Wordsworth in the Lake District, Neils Bohr in Deer Park, and on and on," said Stephen Metcalf on this week's Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. That show devoted a segment to the joys of walking, noting that it has become such a necessary activity in this unusual moment of extended quarantine for most of us.
And that's the thing about walking that fits this moment so well. Sure, we all need some physical exercise after being in our homes most of the day. But the mental freedom, relaxation, and maybe even creative spark that walking can provide is something else that we deeply need right now.
How to love your walk even more)
If you can get out, do. Walking's benefits have been well-studied: Walking is good for your brain, your body, and time walking in natural settings demonstrably lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Depending on where you live, you may or may not be able to get out for a nice long walk right now. If you're in an urban area in Europe or Israel, local orders might allow only minimal walking outside your home. But many people live in less-dense urban areas where getting out for a walk is still encouraged. As of this writing, you can walk in all American cities as long as you maintain a minimum of 6 feet between you and other walkers, though some parks, trails and public areas have been closed.
Keep it comfy: You don't need any special clothing; in fact, I've been focusing on not wearing "workout clothes" while out on my long jaunts because it reminds me that this isn't a physical requirement to get through, but a break to enjoy. I've been wearing long skirts, comfortable shoes (either sneakers or my good walking boots), a wool under layer, and a cozy sweater and scarf. It makes the walk feel like a journey rather than an obligation when I wear comfortable clothes that I would go to town in under different circumstances.
Relax into your own gait: We all have a natural rhythm we fall into when we walk long distances. If you haven't done it before (or are used to running), it may take a walk or two to figure out your own preferred pace. A good way to tell is if you could keep up a conversation with someone next to you while walking—that's a good speed for you. Also, unless you're starting from no fitness at all, you should be able to keep walking for an hour without feeling exhausted during the exercise. Feeling like you still have energy left over is one of the great joys of walking — it does not drain you.
Practice mindfulness: You can meditate while walking — it's a real form of meditative practice which you can learn how to do with a few simple walking meditation guidelines. Or you can purposefully focus on the world around you, which is especially relaxing when you're in a natural place and walking the same route most days. It's spring, so look for signs the natural world is blooming or growing. Use all your senses: Try smelling blossoms or freshly turned earth, and touching the soft exterior of new buds. Taking photos with your phone can be a fun way to document your walk and share it with others.
Zone out and relax: As neurobiologist Shane O'Mara writes in his new book, "In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration," "Walking is ... a form of active idleness, and it facilitates engaged mind-wandering." While our feet wander, so does our brain, and that's part of the reason it's stress-reducing — and can maybe even help us solve thorny problems. "A variety of experiments show that active mind-wandering facilitates subsequent creative problem-solving, with participants who have mind-wandered providing more creative solutions compared to those who have not," writes O'Mara.
Get social (from a distance): Connecting with yourself is great, but your walks can also be a great time to catch up with family or friends on a long phone call. Many of us are checking in more frequently with loved ones, or realizing that it's been too long since we heard from a person we think of as a close pal. Plan a time for you and your friend to walk together outside, but don't meet up — chat on the phone instead. Since we're all meant to keep away from each other, your chat shouldn't disturb anyone else, and will make you feel like you've walked "with" someone.
Get your groove on: If your walk is feeling a bit boring, why not pump up the jams and dance a little? Chances are nobody will see you — or if they do, they'll think "there's someone dancing" — so who cares? It can bring a sense of fun goofiness and freedom to do some dance steps while walking, shimmy your shoulders, or take a couple spins. No need to go full "prancercise" but why not have fun?
None of us knows how long this lockdown is going to go on, but keeping mentally and physically healthy means more of us are likely to get through this trying time in one piece. We're all out there, walking together, waving across roads and giving each other plenty of space.
It's a most human endeavor to take a walk for almost any reason, or no reason at all.
As Stephen Metcalf reminds us: "[Walking] is, after all, the simplest and most human act, emphasizing our uprightness, our capacity for solitude, contemplation, and friendship."