Let's Walk and Roll
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Well, there is absolutely no way that I could start this blog without first giving you a glimpse of my comedy hero, George Carlin. Before continuing reading, watch this, it's only 1:23 and it sets up the entire blog. There's plenty of profanity but, you know, you're reading my blog so you're probably already with me on that.
Go ahead, go watch George and then come back.
Are you back?
Yes, I'm writing a blog about putting one foot in front of the other and I can hear George's voice going through my head and it's making me laugh.
But here's the thing.
Quarantine has changed a lot of things and by a lot of things I mean literally every single thing and that includes the value of walking. (Also, to be clear, this entire blog would apply to anyone in a wheelchair or with other mobility problems. If you can move, you're in.)
Walking hasn't changed in and of itself. It's always been good for you. Just because it's a pandemic doesn't mean walking suddenly burns more calories or makes you extra strong or packs a bigger general bang for your general buck. This guy hasn't changed walking itself at all:
But everything *surrounding* the walking has changed.
We sit more.
We go out less.
We don't commute.
We don't have to park in the very last space in the parking lot because Target is packed.
We don't even go to Target and spend 90 minutes and $200 on socks, paper towels, and a wall print that says You Feel Like Sunshine.
We aren't regularly dancing our asses off until four in the morning with the Dinos.
These small energy expenditures add up to huge energy expenditures. It's called NEAT. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. It's the energy you expend when you're just living your day. It's distinct from working out. So this is stuff like doing your dishes, walking to the bus, going back across the grocery store because you always forget that peanut butter is inexplicably in the cereal aisle, etc. (FWIW, I would have it in either Baking or Condiments. Why would it be in cereal?)
NEAT expends the vast majority of your daily energy burn. I might burn 400 calories in a workout, but I burn about 1400 calories from NEAT each day. NEAT matters.
You see where we're going with this? People are lamenting losing their gym and fitness options and I hear you, because those offer a buffet of health that we're missing out on. I never knew I could miss my bloodied and blistered hands so much. But the bigger problem right now is the loss of our daily NEAT calories. Our asses are S-I-T-T-I-N-G these days. Plus the timing of the pandemic has been lucky so far. Warm weather since the start means we've still been able to make the most of being outside. Just wait for winter.
This shit is gonna still be around and winter is gonna be actual hell. We're gonna spend four straight months inside and then spring 2021 is gonna come tap us on the shoulder and it's gonna be all Lila Crane finding Mrs. Bates.
(Please wear a mask everywhere. Please? A lot of people are dying.)
So if we can find a way to build some type of safe outdoors habit now, it's gonna be a whole lot easier to maintain that habit through the winter. We'll already be used to doing it. Doing nothing now and then trying to convince yourself to start walking when it's four degrees out and the wind is a cunt and it gets dark at like 2:34pm and you hate everyone on the planet (is it just me who struggles with winter...?) is gonna be way way way harder.
Start now, while it's still warm.
Because of all this sitting, the movement parts of quarantine have suddenly taken on massive value. And arguably the biggest value movement right now is plain ol' boring ol' little ol' walking.
Even if you are doing regular exercise, your body is yearning for walks. And if you aren't doing regular exercise, your body wants them twice as badly.
Just one fifteen minute walk reduces food cravings.
I can hear Carlin again: WALKING?!
Yeah, walking! For some, it seems like a bitch workout, while for others it feels like slow torturous drudgery, and for others it's a real endurance challenge to keep moving for an hour or more at a time without stopping. So why should we be deliberately walking every day? Is it to Burn Calories! Incinerate Those Snacks! Turn Your Puff Into Tuff!
Nah. Your Puff can stay Puff for all I care.
We should be walking constantly, because walking helps build endurance, leg and foot strength, mobility, and balance. That seems evident. But here are some things that you may not know about when it comes to walking:
SLEEP LIKE A BOSS.
Ooooooh, shit, you're full of quarantine nightmares now? Me too. The other night I dreamt one of my dear friends was hooking up with my mom and I only found out about it because I walked in on the two of them in the bathroom of my childhood home. You don't think that has fucked me up for days now? Because it sure has.
My guess as to why we're all suffering super weird quarantine dreams is because most of us are spending more time in REM sleep than we used to. I used to average 6 hours a night and I'm digging into 8 or 9 now. That's a whole lot more potential REM sleep. And REM sleep is beautiful, even if it comes with bad dreams.
REM sleep starts in little flits and spurts as you fall asleep, and it gets deeper and lasts longer the longer you're asleep. If you're sleeping terribly, you'll likely miss out on a ton of REM sleep. Sure, you won't have to dream about your mom having sex with your friend, but is that nightmare worse than the heightened anxiety, PTSD, irritability, and other symptoms of chronic poor sleeping? (Answer: maybe.)
Post-surgical patients go home sooner if they see trees out their window.
Happily, I have great news for shitty snoozers! One well-documented way of sleeping better? Walking. Walking has been tested extensively because it's easy to modulate for large groups of people, and the results are impressive.
One study looked at 490 people: approximately half were exercisers and half were non-exercisers. They were given a target of 10,000 steps a day for 4 weeks.
Both groups slept better from adding the extra steps, even if they were already regular exercisers outside of the walking. The worker-outers improved in self-assessed sleep score and in their perceived sleep quality.
The non-worker-outers did even better, improving on sleep score, falling asleep faster, staying asleep longer, AND their perceived sleep quality. That's some big-ass results from a not so big-ass effort.
Sure, you can say that people knew they were supposed to be sleeping better and therefore felt like they were sleeping better. But sleep latency (how long it takes to fall asleep after lying down) and sleep duration (actual hours of actual sleep) are real hard to fake by placebo effect.
Furthermore, some small studies have shown that people take fewer sleeping meds when they start walking more, and in my opinion less medication is always a goal. Though if you argued to me that you need several daily Atavan a glass of scotch and a bunch of pot to handle anything about 2020, I would hear your argument.
This unusual study out of Japan looked specifically at forest walking as a way of improving sleep. This was more of an acute intervention: they measured sleep after a long forest walk on 8 different weekends over a three month period. In other words, the effects of just one walk, not three straight months of walks. And yeah, I don't even have to write it, but people slept better the night after a forest walk. And interestingly, a mid-afternoon walk did better than a mid-morning walk.
Just one afternoon walk helped people sleep 54 minutes longer that night. Plenty of time to have a sex dream about your mom.
HANDLE YOUR DEPRESSION LIKE A BOSS
Depression is rampant now and predicted to be a leading cause of global disease in another decade. Here in the US we're like "RISE AND GRIND!" "CLIMB THE LADDER TO SUCCESS!" "ALWAYS STRIVING!" and we're attached to our phones so we don't miss an email or a post at any time of day or week and we spend weekends trying to catch up with every single thing we're behind on. Americans work constantly and 1/3 of us are on our smartphones "almost constantly." (A full 50% of people under 30 put themselves in the "almost constantly" category.) We work hundreds more hours annually than any other of the wealthiest countries on the planet.
For purposes of illustration, here's a neat-o graph showing the legal requirement for paid days off in 21 of the richest nations in the world.
Well, fuck. USA! USA! USA! We. Love. To. Work. (Or, rather, someone else. loves. us. to. work. for them.)
There are lots of other sources of depression but we know that excessive working and excessive time online are two of the big ones. How can you hack these two birds with one stone? Think long and hard now. Oh yeah, say it with me George, WALKING!
This study followed nearly 2,000 women from 2001 to 2010 who reported depressive symptoms at the start. The researchers distinguished between women who did any kind of physical activity regularly and women who specifically walked for exercise. Not surprisingly, the women with the highest total physical activity were in the mentally-healthiest group at the end. But the women who exclusively walked for exercise? Yeah, they were also in the mentally-healthiest group at the end of the study. Boom! If all you have time for is walking, that's not a bad thing. It's actually a great thing and all you need to keep a fit body and mind.
Women who walk exclusively for exercise are among the mentally-healthiest groups.
As for time online? Time attached to your phone? Time checking email? Anyone who knows me knows that I won't shut up about getting people to put their phone down, to not answer work emails on the weekend, to stop obsessively scrolling every five minutes looking for that quick mobile snack of distraction. DISNACKTION.
This research, from 2011, is focused primarily on Facebook but can easily be made current for Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok, and, of course, Instagram. And it's terrifying. I'll just boil it down.
Excessive smartphone use:
Decreases real-life social interaction
Lowers academic performance (In a bunch of ways, but one is that people retain less info from reading online than from paper. So even when they're trying to use their phone for learning, it sucks.)
Negatively affects relationships (friendships, romantic relationships, and parenting)
Has adverse effects similar to several psychiatric disorders (depression, anxiety, poor sleeping, etc.)
Impairs social and emotional functioning on all levels owing to its portability (In other words, you never have to interact too much with others outside the house because you'll always have your phone to turn to for support.)
And is particularly appealing to people with low self-esteem, which is a group already prone to all of the above problems. Social media, like beauty brands, is strategically designed to capitalize on the vulnerable emotions of certain people—the people most likely to become their most loyal users.
That's a whole world of shit that can be at least mitigated by adding physical activity. Lots of research is being done to try and dig ourselves out of the tech addiction pit that we've all willingly jumped into. The majority of that research includes at least one component of physical activity as therapy. We know how well exercise and activity battles against and even helps stave off anxiety and depression. So the hope is that it does the same for work addiction and smartphone addiction, which often result in those same detrimental mental health states.
FIX YOUR QUARANTINE SNACKING LIKE A BOSS
I'm fine with your puff but I'm not fine with your sitting in your couch divot for twelve hours inhaling a party size bag of Doritos followed by a party size bag of Fritos followed by a bowl of ice cream. Your body *hates* that. Literally hates it.
(As a detour, if you're currently eating like this because you're utterly miserable, first, ok, I hear you, and second, send me an email and let's talk about it. Then I challenge you to leave the bags in the kitchen and practice allowing yourself to experience very hard emotions instead of covering them up. This includes going so far as taking the DM you sent me and saying it to someone you love instead. I'm working on this myself and it's brutal, but allowing yourself to feel your hurt and talk about your hurt will also teach you how to get out of your hurt. Slathering emotional eating all over your emotional catastrophe isn't going to get you far, even if it feels like it will. End detour <3 <3)
So what's the solution to quarantine snacking? Because no one wants to sit there resenting that they have Doritos but can't eat them. That's the diet nightmare come true. And the world sucks so much right now that it would be criminal to NOT have snacks in the house for when you need them.
Well, the first predictable answer from me is that you can eat a salad first, which is well-known to reduce the amount of food that people eat afterwards.
How does this voodoo work? Any kind of movement creates a shift in your body's allocation of resources. Getting off the couch makes your body shunt most of the blood in your body to your muscles (for powering them) and skin (for sweating). Digestion is almost entirely shut down. (If you've ever had diarrhea immediately before an athletic event, you probably remember that to your surprise, that urgency went away after a bit of moving.) When you take regular walks, your body recognizes no immediate need for digestion and "turns it off" for a while. Thus, your feelings of wanting to eat are curtailed.
CONNECT WITH YOUR COMMUNITY LIKE A BOSS
Hey, you live somewhere, and the chances are that you've lived there long enough to completely ignore what's around you because you see it so often.
Time to re-think that. Living in a walkable community—and actually walking around in it—has been shown to be an amazing community vitalizer and revitalizer. Walkable communities are safer (more lights, more signs, slower driving speeds), more social (you get to know your neighbors, not so great in my instance—looking at you Cupcake Bitch—but could be great in your instance), and great for business. Companies always want to open a store in communities where people walk a ton. And guess what? If you extrapolate this further, then we can add in that utilities in the area will ultimately cost less, employment will ultimately go up, and home value will ultimately increase, all because it's a walkable community.
On top of your benefit to the community, there are tons of ways that the community can benefit you. Walking around your area might lead to you discover which houses have amazing pollinating gardens, or which streets have amazing Tudor houses. You might pass a restaurant you didn't even know was there, or a local grocery store that you could support instead of a grocery giant. On a walk I recently discovered a miles-long pathway along the Charles River that I had no idea was there. I snagged this picture, which has brought me happiness every time I've looked at it since then.
The point is, you matter to your community and your community matters to you. It matters to your quality of life and it matters to your health. Understanding, recognizing, and taking part in your local community benefits everyone except Amazon. And doesn't that sound like the very best result of all?
DE-STRESS LIKE A BOSS
I guess this one isn't super relevant, since basically no one is stressed these days. It's an extremely relaxing time to be a human.
Being outside (whether walking or stationary) is well-known to help us de-stress. Nature helps us calm down. Shit even looking at pictures of nature makes us calm down. Being outside has been advertised as medicine for a really long time (like, since Hippocrates) and now is no different. You combine movement and being outdoors and all of a sudden you've set your mental health on an entirely new track.
As a self-described indoor cat (never invite me to go camping. never), I still can't overemphasize the benefits of the outdoors. Yes there are large bugs and other humans but there are beautiful things to enjoy, especially when the weather is warm. You don't even have to leave your house. Simply being near a window makes a difference. In this study, post-surgical patients in the hospital were happier, demonstrated a better mood and attitude, and went home sooner if their room looked at trees instead of at a brick wall.
We also like the sounds of the outside and the smell of the outside, both of which impact our mood and affect. Here's a fun one: people are nicer to each other when the atmosphere around them smells good. In fairness, this study used cookie and coffee smells and like, ok, fine, researchers, you win, because those are two of the best smells on the planet. Anyone would be nice if they thought an oatmeal raisin cookie was coming their way. But still, it's reasonable to think that the smells we love outside (cut grass, leaves, flowers, water) would affect us in the same way.
There are so many more benefits of walking. Benefits to arthritis; keeping lonely people company; injury prevention; family bonding; a reduction in the risk of about twenty chronic diseases; etc etc etc. But this is enough to get you started.
I still owe you one more blog on shoulders and we're gonna do that next, but this was too important to ignore. Remember, building the habit now will make winter walks a whole lot more feasible. And those of us taking winter walks are gonna have a major leg up on the wave of isolation and depression that I'm predicting is coming. So grab your dog, grab your kid, grab your partner, grab a friend, or grab yourself and take those feet out for a stroll. Every time you feel that quarantine restlessness, go take a stroll. Every time you're bored, take a stroll. Every time you're stress eating, stroll. (Feel free to resume stress eating afterwards, we all need that from time to time.) Every time you're like, "wow, what a beautiful day!" go take a stroll to absorb it.
You don't have to go far. You don't have to walk forever. You can drive to a park, walk along a pathway, and sit at every bench you pass on the way. You'll get every benefit I've just spent seven pages describing. Just find a way to give your body what it desperately craves: some personal attention from you.
Love ya. See you next time, for shoulders.