When I was a working person, my daily route took me just close enough to Chastain Park that I would get a glimpse of people out for a morning walk. And I would be so envious! “What a civilized way to start one’s day,” I would think. I would go on to imagine that if one started one’s day with a walk, there was no end to the other beneficial acts that could follow. Meditation? Check. Cooking a healthy breakfast? Check. Yoga? Check. Writing in one’s journal? Check. A session with your personal trainer? Check. Shopping at the DeKalb Farmer’s Market? Check. Volunteering? Check. And on and on until you became a paragon of wellness. People would marvel at your balance, mindfulness, and centeredness. You would have no choice but to write a self-help book and Oprah would want to interview you. Phew!
Here’s the reality now that I’m neither a working person nor a student. I do, in fact, walk A LOT but not in the disciplined way that I had imagined. The time of day varies with the season along with my motivation for going on a walk on that particular day. When it was late summer/early fall and it stayed lighter longer, I walked fairly regularly in the early evenings (but before dark) to get away from evening food challenges and to avoid the daytime heat. Once the days got shorter and cooler, when I walked became more varied. Sometimes I walk to separate sections of my day; for example, to take a break between my job search and doing errands. Sometimes I walk because I’m feeling restless and/or anxious and need to exorcise my demons and shake off my tension or stress. Still other times I’ll notice that the day is about to slip away and I want to get a walk in before nightfall. Early mornings are my favorite time of day and sometimes, though not too often, I’ll walk then just for the pure pleasure of it.
What’s most surprising though, is not the when but the what, as in “what does walking do for me?” It’s not so much about all the other healthful activities that it inspires, but more about all that I experience while I walk. While I totally believe in the many benefits of meditation, I don’t love sitting still and find that I can quiet my mind better if there’s some gentle movement involved at the same time such as doing Qi Gong. But walking outside is the best; it is hands down my favorite form of meditation. Whenever I walk I’m filled with gratitude that I can get from point A to point B with ease and comfort; that my body works as designed (which was not true for my mom). But that’s just the beginning. When I walk I notice things, though not always and rarely the same things. (Just yesterday I noticed for the very first time that a house I had passed innumerable times before was pink! How had I missed that?) During the moments when I’m fully present, there is so much to observe. Always there are my fellow walkers, many who look familiar at this point in time since I do most of my walking at Mason Mill Park. I love that there is such variety in the people whose paths I cross. So many nationalities, races, and ages. People walk alone, in couples, and in groups. It’s fun to guess at the relationships – family, friends, co-workers, partners? Many have dogs with them and though I’m not an animal lover (please forgive me!), I enjoy seeing them as well (as long as they’re on a leash!) Sometimes I play a game where I pick my favorite spot along the path and then try to analyze why this particular spot wins. Is it the curve of the creek at that exact location; or the way the sun is low in the sky and peeks through the trees; or the sound of the water as it breaks over some boulders immediately behind me adding a kind of soundtrack? I’m reminded of why I find going to the beach to be so therapeutic; as if I’ve pressed a mental reset button. I think it’s because all your senses get bombarded at once, but in a good way – the light bouncing off the ocean, the sound of the waves crashing over and over onto the shore; the smell and taste of the salt water; the tickle of the breeze on your skin. Perhaps in a similar way, my favorite spot also engages my senses more so than ordinary life.
Sometimes I’m not observant at all when I walk because I’m turned inward as I work through problems, sometimes about life’s big questions but also about the more mundane challenges of daily life. On these occasions my walk begins and ends and I’ve hardly noticed anything but I’ve breathed the fresh air, soaked in the sunshine (if I’ve been lucky), and rhythmically pounded the ground. And I feel better for having done so.
In general, I rarely get bored even as I walk the same 2.24 miles over and over again. Sometimes I listen to my iPod; other times I don’t. And all this just scratches the surface…
My trainer recently put up a post on Facebook reminding us that bodies are meant to move and not be stagnant. As I make moving a regular part of my life, I now know the utter truth to this statement. I move regularly in lots of different ways and at varying intensities (running, strength training, Qi Gong, dancing), but walking is the glue – it’s the activity I do most regularly and which is always available to me even if I’m unmotivated or sore. I can even walk on the treadmill at my gym if the weather is inhospitable. I’m not exaggerating when I say that walking keeps me sane as I struggle to figure out who I am and what I want the next stage of my life to look like.