TED Talks' recent 2017 annual conference had its usual share of jaw dropping technological marvels and scientific breakthroughs. But the biggest standing ovation of the conference came when Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison described how they’ve impacted the health and lives of over a hundred thousand women using a decidedly low-tech method—walking.
Dixon and Garrison are not alone in giving walking its due. A brand new article in American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association reveals the surprising impact walking with other people has on our minds and relationships. Unifying work from numerous fields of research, the article focuses on the subconscious ways walking together can make two people adopt cooperative body postures, fall into rhythm with one another, sync their attention, and embody the metaphor of ‘moving on’ to create a mindset that is conducive to interpersonal conflict resolution.
Dixon and Garrison did not know this when they founded GirlTrek, the largest public health nonprofit for African American women and girls in the United States. What they did know was the numbers—numbers that showed 82 percent of black women were overweight and that black women were dying at younger ages and at higher rates than any other group of women in the country. They also knew that walking could reduce the health risks associated with obesity by fifty percent.
GirlTrek is not a fitness movement it is a healing campaign. And that is where these lesser known psychological effects of walking enter the picture. While researchers were discovering new dimensions to the way walking impacts our unconscious mind, Garrison and Dixon were a step ahead, purposefully creating the conditions to maximize physical and mental sync among walkers. “GirlTrek walkers strive to keep a pace of four miles an hour,” Dixon explained, “so we end up creating a rhythm together.”
I asked if interpersonal conflict resolution was a common occurrence on the walks. “It happens every day,” Garrison responded. “For example, two sisters from different states had a recent disagreement over a family issue that remained unresolved. When they finally met in person, their first instinct as members of GirlTrek was to walk together and talk. By the end of that walk they had worked things out and healed their relationship.”
“We see conflict resolution happening on the community level as well,” Dixon added. “GirlTrek walkers often complete a walk with clear action plans for tackling issues and problems within their neighborhoods.”
The spirit of healing and problem solving among GirlTrek walkers is not coincidental. GirlTrek’s guidelines for walkers are aimed at maximizing physical, spiritual, and psychological healing while creating bonds of sisterhood. Consider these three: “We hustle, we don’t mosey, which means we aspire to remain at a good pace,” Dixon explained, “and we never leave a sister behind and so we loop and scoop,” meaning the lead walker will periodically loop back and scoop up any stragglers.
GirlTrek’s goal for 2018 is to have one million black women and girls walking regularly and using their walks to heal, to resolve conflict, to connect, to recover their sense of agency and with it, to effect change that encompasses their bodies, their souls, and their communities.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about GirlTrek is the way its walkers are reminding all who see them, that creating change in our lives is as simple and as accessible as stepping outside—and walking with our neighbors.
Copyright 2017 Guy Winch
Webb, C. E., Rossignac-Milon, M., & Higgins, E. T. (2017). Stepping forward together: Could walking facilitate interpersonal conflict resolution? American Psychologist, 72(4), 374-385.