If you’ve been feeling stuck lately, you’re not alone — many people in the era of COVID-19 feel trapped and uncertain about the future. But experts say there’s a simple escape: going for a walk.
“We need a lot of resilience right now,” said Niro Feliciano, a cognitive therapist and author of the podcast "Coping With The New Normal of COVID-19." “There's a lot ahead that we still don't know what's coming, and a lot of changes, and if walking is one way to build resilience — as studies have proven — I think we should do it.”
A brisk, 20-minute walk in sunny weather is enough to foster resilience, she said, and can lead to more “expansive and open thinking.” It also boosts vitamin D, which in turn increases serotonin, an important mood enhancer and precursor to melatonin, which helps us sleep better. And of course, it’s a great way to manage weight.
Walking has become a popular pastime during the pandemic because it is a simple, low-impact exercise that is easy for most people to squeeze into a busy schedule, according to Lori Klett Roberto, a clinical psychologist who runs a “walk and talk” therapy program in Sacramento, California. Pandemic shutdowns have led many people to feel stuck and uncertain about their future, she said, and walking has given them a physical and psychological way to “move forward.”
“It's something that most people can do without a lot of forethought,” she said. “Most people can put on some shoes and go out and walk, so it tends to be a safe activity.”
Konstantine Karloutsos, 41, a busy finance professional who lives in Ridgefield, Connecticut, took up walking last March after the pandemic shut down his Manhattan office. He started walking on a daily basis with his wife, Erin, a nurse, and their dog, as an easy way to lose weight and alleviate stress.
“It gave us the ability to kind of take our minds off of our daily tasks during the day, and all the pressures that came with that,” said Karloutsos.
Building a walking routine? Start with small steps
How you incorporate walking into your day will look different for everyone. Let’s say you want to start out walking 30 minutes a day — you can walk before or after work, and if you have kids, you can take them with you.
Rather than thinking about walking as an “all or nothing” activity, “step into it gradually,” said Roberto. If your schedule is too hectic for a scheduled routine, Roberto said you can “chunk” small walks into your schedule when you have time. “Can you break it up into three, 10-minute walks?” she said. “Or even just doing more steps around your house or your apartment?”
According to Feliciano, the best way to create sustainable behavioral change — such as walking on a daily basis — especially for weight loss, is to start small. “In order to create that habit, we have to start small, because the most important thing is consistency and sustainability,” she said.
Walking is one of the safest and easiest ways to lose weight. Doctors typically recommend walking at least 45 minutes, or about 10,000 steps, most days of the week.
Karloutsos, who lost about 20 pounds since last year, said he goes for shorter strolls on his lunch breaks and longer walks with his wife in the evenings after work, which are typically at least three miles. He used to go to extremes to try to lose weight, he said, like taking up high-intensity programs like P90X, but said these were too aggressive. Once he took up his daily pandemic walks, he finally started to shed the extra pounds. He said walking enabled him to challenge himself gradually, adding “a little bit more” distance as it got easier.
“What you'll see is over time, you start getting more addicted to it, you want to challenge yourself a little bit more with ‘let me go a little longer, or an extra mile or more frequent,’” he said.
Roberto said a great way to build walking into your routine is to “merge it with other aspects” of your life, such as going for a walk on your lunch break or using it as an opportunity to spend time with your family.
Ted Rivers, 30, who lives in Leicester, England, lost 40 pounds before the pandemic by incorporating walking into his daily commute to the teleradiology company he used to work for.
“I just feel like it is so underestimated by people, because it's so easy to do,” said Rivers who walked about 40 minutes each way to his job, as well as on his lunch breaks.
“You can scale up, start walking faster when you're ready, introducing more inclines, it's completely adjustable to what you want to achieve,” said Rivers, who is now a freelance writer and podcaster. “And it's so much easier to do than other types of cardio like running, or swimming, which is a full-body workout.”
Embrace the mental benefits
For many people, having a regular routine is important for balancing well being, especially for those who struggle with mental health. But the pandemic has destroyed the routines of millions of people, forcing them to adapt to working from home, often while taking care of young children.
Feliciano said a walking routine is a way for everyone, especially those who struggle with mental health, to nurture well being, since it creates a sense of achievement.
“You get to check it off your list, it gives you a feeling of accomplishment, you've done something and that increases your motivation to do the next thing in your day,” she said.
Jennifer Lally, 43, a seventh grade teacher in Ridgefield, Connecticut, took up walking last year with her husband, Daniel Lee, after the pandemic struck in March. Lally, who struggles with bipolar disorder, had to quickly learn how to teach remotely after her middle school shut down in March of last year. She says the sudden adjustment was “stressful.”
“One of my concerns for me, being bipolar, was how was I going to keep my mind in a good place, especially with all the changes and everything that was going on?” she said.
Lally decided to take up walking as a way to manage her mental health. On weekdays, after school, she goes for long walks around Ridgefield. Having a consistent walk schedule created a sense of psychological structure, she said, and was “one of the things that kept me in check.”
Is it hard to motivate yourself? Get a walking buddy
If you are someone who struggles with sticking to a routine, getting a walking buddy — be it a romantic partner, family member or friend — can hold you accountable to your goals and keep you motivated. A walking buddy can also foster a sense of connection during a time when we have become isolated, according to Feliciano.
“You have the psychological benefits and the emotional benefits of connection,” she said, noting that regular interaction with others reduces the stress hormone cortisol.
For Lally, going on family hiking trips around upstate New York and rural Connecticut has been a fun way to spend quality time with her husband, a telematics salesman who works in Florida during the week, and their two teenage daughters. She said that “being intentional about finding different places to go,” and having a sense of adventure with her family, has become “an epic experience for us.”
With offices opening back up, Karloutsos is working in his Manhattan office again, but is sticking to his walking routine. He said he regularly schedules walking meetings with his colleagues, and continues to go on evening strolls with his wife.
“Throughout all this, the relationship we have grew stronger, and how we had the time together was really, really personally rewarding,” he said.
3 ways to build walking into your daily routine, according to experts:
Avoid “all or nothing” thinking and start small. Do what is doable for you, whether it’s a quarter of a mile or three miles. As you begin to feel comfortable, add more steps or miles to your walks.
If you can, designate a time in your schedule for your walks. Whether it’s in the morning before work, on your lunch break or in the evenings, dedicating specific times for walking will help make it a habit and part of your every day routine. If you have a crazy schedule, try “chunking” small walks into your schedule when you have time.
Find a walking buddy, be it a romantic partner, family member or friend, whose job is to keep you motivated and vice versa.
Want to make walking a part of your routine? Check out these meditative and calorie-burning walking plans.