By Diane Medved
The early Coronavirus walkers started in March, venturing out in the cold, with barely any yellow-green buds emerging on the trees. That’s when I saw mostly pairs and trios of women, chatting while striding in their workout leggings and sweats. That seems so long ago; the numbers of walkers multiplied as the weeks tumbled on, one after another, with time a flat circle rather than its usual spiral of progress.
But our gardens prove us wrong—time makes a huge difference in the textures we pass on our strolls, as seasonal colors pop, species shift and yards now overflow with greenery.
With gyms and fitness classes closed, and the claustrophobia of sheltering in place, one of the few escapes permitted has been local walks, solitary unless properly distanced or with household members and the trusted few who comprise an insulated “bubble.” My habit has been a morning walk with my daughter, marking and marching together as her pregnancy progressed. We parted before noon, when each of us Zoomed a fitness class with our favorite instructors, mine teaching Zumba in Honolulu. Then in the afternoon, when my husband finished his radio-host duties, the three of us chose a different local destination, an outing punctuated by my husband’s litter pickups and my stopping for flora (and some fauna) photos that document this strange period of time.
As the world tentatively emerges from lockdown, a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association encourages us to tread the sidewalks and trails if we want to live longer, as well as to shake off our sedentary ennui. A representative sample of nearly 5,000 adults over age 40 wore a device that measured the number and intensity of participants’ steps. As you might expect, taking 8,000 steps per day or more significantly lowered all-cause mortality, but the interesting finding is that the intensity of those steps didn’t make a difference. In other words, runners and amblers got the same benefit in longevity from their outings.
So those of us who pick up litter, or snap photos of stunning landscaping along the way, reap the same health benefits as the breathless runners passing us, as long as by the ends of our junkets we’ve covered the same distance.
If you’d like to help clean up the neighborhood on your walks, with minimal risk, I suggest you buy a grabber and carry a large plastic bag you can reuse. The grabber I got my husband is called a “gopher” and conveniently folds in two. It’s able to scrape the flattest and most stuck-on papers from the cement with its disk-shaped tongs. While spotting teddy bears perched in windows is a fun, heart-warming part of our treks, perhaps more useful is recovering a plastic bottle or shiny can tossed next to the road. Much less rewarding is retrieving dog poop bags, or the many purple and blue rubber gloves we come upon. Increasingly, we find discarded masks on the street, or even cast into the trees. What kind of person dumps a facemask on the sidewalk?
By now, most people know the raft of research crediting walking with an array of positive outcomes. A 2009 study showed that walking 30 minutes or more lowers risk of coronary heart disease. An hour’s walk daily, found the American Cancer Society, reduces the risk of breast cancer. Results from Harvard University show an hour’s jaunt sliced the effect of weight-promoting genes in half. Another study, at the University of Exeter, found 15 minutes’ walk can curb cravings for sweets, even when under stress. Several researchers have shown diminished arthritis pain, and increased immune response with regular walking.
And then there are the social and psychological benefits. Many people relish the time to listen to Medved history shows or podcasts, catch up with friends on the phone, and ideally, enjoying the beauty of nature. A 2018 meta-analysis by Japanese researchers compared the impact of walking in urban versus forested areas. Trait anxiety was significantly reduced by walking through woods for just 15 minutes, as compared to cities. During this Covid-19 crisis, we’ve been able to note trees leafing out, trilliums’ blooming, and longer days’ light through cedar branches. In many community parks you’ll come upon randomly-placed painted rocks, many with upbeat messages. Exploring local green spaces these last weeks gave many long-time residents their first acquaintance with ravines and streams they might not have noticed driving down their usual thoroughfares.
Socially, those in family “bubbles” (people who live in the same house, or have limited their contacts to each other) may encounter friends and neighbors on the road, renewing contact with six-foot spaces. One time as my husband and I hailed some friends, a police car cruised by slowly, paused to note our safe distance, and gave us the thumbs-up. Seeing so many families enjoy our parks and paths as the weather has warmed brings new value to living in friendly and beautiful communities.
With so many creative people at home, residents use their talents to safely engage with neighbors who are now walking by. The Seattle Times reported front-porch concerts in Ravenna and Kirkland; KING 5 featured an opera singer doing the same. The Washington Post described two sister cellists who played for shut-ins; New York City echoes with applause, cheers and song every night at 7 pm as people emerge to balconies and stoops to show appreciation for essential workers. With summer, more musicians will likely serenade after-dinner strollers.
Canine walk-buddies are suddenly everywhere, as home-bound families gained a new appreciation for their non-complaining companions always eager for attention. Pet foster programs on both coasts saw a 70% jump and a notable rise in adoptions. Pets provide a convenient excuse—or need—to get out the leash. Lots of people bring doggie bags to responsibly clean their pooch’s poop (though I must again mention: don’t leave filled bags by the road!). It’s now common for parks to conveniently provide dispensers for pick-up supplies, usually near a trash can for disposal. Dog-walkers have the advantage of combining exercise for themselves and their hounds simultaneously, making for two happy hikers.
Some folk are combining their striding with imbibing. A new phenomenon of “walktailing” offers the bonus of working off one’s aperitif. Cradling a Starbucks cup while walking may be the norm, but toting refreshment in a martini glass might be a bit suspect. Sgt. Lauren Truscott of the Seattle Police Department, quoted in the New York Times, suggested officers won’t be investigating the contents of open containers, even if carrying liquor that way is illegal. “We’re really trying to limit exposure between officers and citizens, so I think that would fall into that nonemergent category where people aren’t harming themselves or other people,” she said.
OK, alcohol might decrease your overall hydration, and enough of it might affect your coordination as you transverse the sidewalks. But this summer, when we’re all dealing with the tough economic and health ramifications of a pandemic, an outdoor promenade, perhaps lubricated with water, six feet from a masked friend, might be a necessary anxiety-soother. It’s a chance to smile at fellow walkers, inhale some oxygen in a forest, and in our case, say “I love you” to our grand-daughters who live three miles from our home. We stand beneath their second-story front deck and receive a few minutes of toddler attention, quite enough to fuel our souls for the saunter back home.
With so much reason to lace up your Nikes, we can easily fulfill this recommendation from Charles Dickens: “Walk and be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk—steadily and with a purpose.”
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker, and author of seven books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. Reach her at DianeMedved.com. She and her husband, talk radio host and author Michael Medved can be seen walking, grabber and bag, and camera in hand.