A Long Walk Can Change Everything

A photo of a black woman walking her dog at a park.
Photo: Drazen Zigic/Getty Images

The way we walk right now might feel inhuman — it goes against our evolutionary wiring to avoid connecting with other people. When we see a neighbor, we wave from afar. We give strangers a wide berth. There are no coffee shops to stop at, no casual errands to run. It can seem like walking just for the sake of walking is not worth the effort.

But it is. It’s one of the most effective ways to connect with a world that feels increasingly distant — precisely because we can’t socialize.

I spent the past few years writing a book on the role of walking in our evolution, communities, and health. The process led me to see walking as central to being human. Turning your daily, seemingly aimless walks into a kind of moving meditation won’t stop the pandemic or restore jobs, but it can reduce your stress levels and rebuild a connection to the body that our stuck-inside minds desperately crave.

Instead of just being something to do, walking can be a reminder that many of us seek to live more deeply because what was previously considered normal life was so thoroughly unsatisfying. Walking helps us remember what it feels like to be fully alive.

Yes, walking counts as exercise

Walking outside is surprisingly cognitively demanding. Walking regularly strengthens mental health and our brain’s lifelong faculties, as well as our physical health. It strengthens our cardiovascular system but also lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels, reducing stress. Recently, when I’ve been stuck inside trying to help my kids understand fractions and feeling like my brain is about to blow like a steam train, I’m finding that getting us all outside and moving calms everyone’s nerves and restores our attention (and my patience).

That’s part of why moving your body is a really good idea right now. The most profound lesson that years of research has taught me is that there are things in life, like grief and loss, that we don’t “get through” or “get over.” Some experiences lodge within our bodies, and they require that we pause and probe deeply into loss or fear to examine what these feelings really are. They require that we give them our full attention for at least a few moments at a time. Attention isn’t easy to wrangle, but a walk can turn it into a companion rather than an unruly monkey desperate to distract us.

It doesn’t have to be boring

I’ve been working on slowing down for years. In 2016, at an interdisciplinary artists’ retreat focused on stillness practices, a composer named Alex Mah gave me a handwritten “walking composition” at the end of our two-week residency. I started walking according to his scored instructions when I got back home to Montana, and it has given structure to my “aimless” walks for almost four years now. “Over the course of 500 steps,” it starts, “treading… strolling… pacing… pausing (once) to breathe (for a while). Meandering, stepping.” The score can be performed anywhere, in the woods, in the noisiest urban area, or even in your home.

What I love about Mah’s composition is that it forces me to pay close attention to my body while I’m walking. What is the difference between pacing, stepping, and trudging? If you walk out your door or even inside your home and count 500 steps, breaking them up into different strides, what would you notice about your feet, your legs, and your breath?

You can create a score for yourself that works for your pace and needs. If I’ve had a really stressful day, my pace is always brisk. By consciously slowing my steps and paying attention to where my breathing becomes calmer, my mind will also stop racing, reducing the stress and anxiety. Conversely, if I’m running late or in a hurry and don’t take the time to slow down, I usually arrive at my destination more wound up and anxious than when I left. If you’re living in some degree of quarantine and don’t have somewhere you have to be, chances are you are rarely in a hurry anymore. Take the time to consciously enjoy that small bit of relief.

It also counts as meditation — if you do it right

In Zen Buddhism, walking meditation is an ancient, achingly slow practice known as kinhin. But you don’t have to be Buddhist to try it: Wildmind Meditation’s website has a detailed guide to a similar practice, and the Calm and Headspace apps both offer guided walking meditations.

Walking, obviously, is not the kind of meditation you do with your eyes closed; for me, that makes it more effective. You stay alert and awake. With each step, you become aware of how you’re moving with and against the world. You focus on the small details around you: purslane growing between the cracks of the sidewalk, the new buds on a tree, a small iron gate across a passageway you’ve never noticed before.

My favorite meditative walking tool was created by Donja de Groot’s company, Dao 2 Change. It’s a set of walking meditation cards, each with a quote and prompting questions to guide you through your walk. Many of them are nature-linked, like the one asking you to “walk your habits”: If there is a habit you are trying to change, think about it while you’re walking, and then look at whatever bit of nature you have access to. Ask yourself: What would happen to nature if it had that habit?

What you notice when you walk

I live in Montana, where I have ample opportunity to get out in nature, even during a quarantine. I could theoretically walk out my door and spend weeks in the wilderness without seeing another person. But I often find that walking in more urban areas makes me appreciate both the natural world and human ingenuity even more. An ant scurrying home with a crumb, a bird flying a twig to its nest in progress under a bridge, a cultivated pocket garden showing shoots of spinach. Nature has never been evicted from cities, only transformed.

It’s past time that we started to see the wild all around us as integrated with our lives, no matter how much concrete is involved. If your quarantine allows it, walk your neighborhood. Find ways to perceive it differently. Watch for unruly dandelions, thriving bees, signs of coyotes.

When you walk, follow your physiological responses to emotions: How do your breath and heart rate and neck tension respond when you think about politics or someone who irritated you on social media this morning, or when you worry about what the future will hold? Take a minute to think of someone suffering, right now, someone you can’t see, maybe those working in the grocery store supply chain or on the front lines at a hospital, for whom even the boredom of a daily walk is out of reach. You can even ask yourself what about this surreal experience you might want to retain when life gets back to “normal.”

And through it all, you can breathe and step, breathe and step. Walking always has a purpose. We just have to slow down and pay attention to find it.

Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time; writes on walking, tech, community, and embodiment.

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