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Coronavirus Disease 2019

The Daily Walk: A Psychological and Physical Necessity

It's cabin fever in the springtime.

Assuming everyone in a household is healthy, conversations with friends and family members are starting to become predictable: Information is exchanged about today’s or yesterday’s activities, and often going for a walk is mentioned as the high point of the day.

“I had to get out of the house,” a neighbor told me as I waved to her from across the street. “I try to walk in places where very few people are walking, and I wear my face mask and gloves. If I did not walk, I am not sure I would remain sane."

Her self-awareness of the psychological toll of social isolation probably sounds all too familiar. Some of us are able to go outside and avoid any contact with the outside world; we may be fortunate enough to live in a sufficiently isolated environment, so a walk around the yard, or on the road, or perhaps conservation land, is a solitary experience.

But many of us are so desperate to go for a stroll, fast walk, jog, or even a run once a day, simply to escape the confines of the household, that we risk a less-than-optimal contact with someone else doing the same.

Our household includes a grandchild who spends most of his day in his online university classes or doing homework. But predictably, he emerges from his room and announces that he must go for a run, and then he disappears for an hour.

A friend who lives in an apartment waits all day for his walk in the late afternoon, and so far, even terrible weather has not prevented him from doing so. He told me again in one of those conversations, muffled by a face mask, that he feels as if he is in a minimum-security prison, and allowed to go into the prison yard for an hour each day to walk.

“If someone had told me six months ago that I would view a walk as vital for my sanity, I would have questioned his," he said. "But it is. I crave the physical activity and the freedom of being outside, even for a short time.”

In the old days, pre-COVID-19, to go or not go on a walk was something we thought about in terms of weather, time, an interesting place to walk, whether the dog had to go outside, or if there was something more compelling to do in the house. The idea of walking to a destination such as a store or post office, rather than driving, was usually dismissed for lack of time, inconvenience, or simply preference for being in the car. To be sure, because of the importance of walking as part of a daily exercise routine, many did either walk alone, with a companion, or in a small group on a regular basis. And as pleasant as that was, it often was one more item on the to-do list for the day. “Walk over, onto the next chore...”

Anyone who has ever been told to exercise was probably told in the next to begin with walking. It is unlikely to cause any orthopedic injury, doesn’t require special equipment, can be done in most weather, and at the walker’s convenience. Walking, like any exercise, confers both physical and mental benefits, including decreasing bone loss, improving stamina and balance, as well as possible weight loss, better mood, improved sleep, and decreased stress.

But these days, walking may confer something we never thought we needed; i.e. contact with a natural world that seems oblivious to the bizarre state we all find ourselves in.

Depending on where you live, and when you go for a walk, you will see the signs of spring, maybe just becoming visible, hear a bird song, watch (where I live) lizards scurrying across the sidewalk, see egrets strutting unbothered down an empty road, or discover stars in a sky no longer smudged by air pollution. To borrow an overused phrase, the walker sees "life going on.” Even cold, rain, or wind feels good (albeit temporarily) after being confined to the recirculated air of our living quarters.

After spending hours in front of a computer in a virtual meeting, or lecture, concert, or Zoom-assisted family gathering, being outside gives the walker a chance to be in an actual, as opposed to virtual, environment. Perhaps the walker will see, from a safe distance, a neighbor, friend, fellow dog walker, or a baby carriage pusher, and he/she will feel less alone. Or for those who are sharing living space with too many people, going for a walk is a much-desired opportunity to be alone.

Many of us wonder what life will be like when, or even if, we can resume the lives we had before we ever heard of COVID-19. Maybe one of the positive outcomes will be making a daily walk a psychological necessity (as well as a physical one). Except, post-COVID-19, we will be able to do it without face masks.

More from Judith J. Wurtman Ph.D.
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