We are now approaching the thirteenth anniversary of what may very well be the worst day of my life. Or, as Homer Simpson would say, “The worst day of your life, so far!” Thank you, Homer, for reminding me to be grateful, always.
It was thirteen years ago this month, that I contracted a bad flu. I had one of those fevers that come and go, and come and go. I spent the better part of a week unconscious on the couch. And then, once the fever ended, I went on with my life. I was a busy, young mom at the time, working part-time, going to school part-time, volunteering part-time, and also taking care of my family. Yet even though I had resumed my daily schedule, I still had lingering symptoms: a stubborn cough that wouldn’t go away, and a reduced energy level, but I thought nothing of this. I had too many responsibilities, and too little time to be reflective about it.
One morning shortly thereafter, I suddenly became very dizzy. Vertigo is the appropriate term. I couldn’t lift my head off the bed at all or the world would start to spin. I was also very, very tired. And weak. But those symptoms weren’t as apparent to me at the time because of how bad the dizziness was. It took awhile for me to realize that life, as I had previously known it, was over.
But this blog isn’t really about that illness. It’s actually about the powerful healing that can occur through the simple act of walking. You see, for several years after that fateful day, I couldn’t walk at all. Well, that’s not terribly accurate. I could walk myself to the bathroom on some days, but on others it seemed safer to crawl. When I did walk, it had to be for very short periods of time – no more than fifteen minutes spent on my feet – or I would pay for it later. So, no more walking about the neighbourhood for me.
This was particularly problematic for us because we owned a dog. Somebody had to walk him every day, and since I was no longer able to live a normal life, it seemed natural that this job should fall to me. It frustrated me terribly that I couldn’t do it. You know you’re the true embodiment of uselessness when you can’t even walk a dog!
But time heals all wounds. It took a couple of years, but eventually, I was able to walk the dog again, and even now, I’m so grateful for that daily excursion through the outside world. Initially, I could only walk for short periods. I kept a cell phone on me at all times in case I ran out of energy and couldn’t get back home. (Yes, this was how ludicrous my life had become!) There were some cold, January days when I wondered if I should make the effort, but I never, ever regretted going out. No matter how cold and icy the outdoor condition, I always felt better afterwards.
No wonder. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls walking “the perfect exercise”. He also says that walking is the closest thing we have to a wonder drug. In study after study, the many health benefits of walking have become clear.
Are you ready for the list? A regular, daily walk has been found to reduce arthritis pain, and help prevent its formation in the first place. It can reduce the risk of breast cancer. It boosts immune function. It gets the heart pumping without causing undue strain. It reduces the likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure. It has also been found to reduce cravings for sweet foods, and thus help to prevent diabetes and assist with weight loss.
If you do it outside, walking also boosts vitamin D production. It improves your mood, particularly if you walk in a “green” area with lots of trees. It reduces stress and enhances self esteem. It reduces your sense of isolation by promoting routine contact with other people in your neighbourhood. Recent studies have also shown that walking sparks creative connections. Charles Dickens once admitted that many of his now-famous characters were developed during his daily constitutional walks. To top it all off, walking just three hours per week has been shown to improve brain function in vascular dementia sufferers.
The key to stress-free walking is to avoid over-thinking it. You don’t have to go really fast. Yes, that will get your heart pumping, but you can still experience the benefits of walking even if your pace is slower. It’s also not necessary to walk 10,000 steps per day. That number was manufactured for marketing purposes by a Japanese company that makes pedometers. Really, any amount of walking is beneficial.
According to Peter Snyder of Brown University’s Alpert Medical School, “what we’re finding is that of all of these noninvasive ways of intervening, it is exercise that seems to have the most efficacy at this point—more so than nutritional supplements, vitamins and cognitive interventions … The literature on exercise is just tremendous.” And the simplest and easiest exercise of all, is walking. If it were a medicine, people would buy it by the bucketful.
Now that my body is stronger, I don’t notice the benefits of walking quite so much. That’s one thing about being really sick. You can tell what helps and what doesn’t, because the effect on your body is immediate. But I still remember how a walk made me feel. I remember how my blood started to circulate better, how my muscles and my skin felt invigorated. I remember how my energy picked up and my mood improved. So, I’m a believer. Now, it’s your turn. Time to get out and walk!