Issue #17: How to walk yourself happier (in 7 steps)
Pretend commutes, morning strolls & AirPodestrians. Plus, is 10,000 actually a magic number?
If there’s one kind of magic I believe in, it’s that of putting one foot in front of the other. Naturally, there are days when I wish that wasn’t where my absolute faith lay (like today, when the weather’s doing that sideways-rain thing that can only be described using the Scottish word, dreich). But the reality is, come rain or shine, I’m yet to regret a walk – and there are few things in life I can apply the same logic to.
Growing up, walking seemed too basic a solution to life’s myriad problems. Weren’t you that teenager, too? Rolling your eyes in the face of a well-meaning parent whipping open your curtains and imploring you to pause Rollercoaster Tycoon and Get. Some. Fresh. Air. I hated family walks at this age, trudging around our local nature reserve with two gelled-stiff strands of hair framing my kohl-lined death stare.
By the time we reach adulthood, most of us concede to our elders’ better judgement. Or we might have changed our minds more recently: lockdown rebranded walking as a time-bound treat amid the shitstorm of Covid. As did TikTok, the birthplace of trends such as the Hot Girl Walk, and a spat of videos dedicated to ‘Going on a stupid walk for my stupid mental health’.
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Walking is also the no-brainer addition to most listicles about improving your mental wellbeing (case in point, this one from academic publication The Conversation, entitled ‘Four habits of happy people – as recommended by a psychologist’).
7 ways to improve your walk (for your health & happiness)
I’m not going to waste more words expounding its benefits. Instead, I want to reflect on how to make that daily walk even better – through asking some of the obvious questions. e.g.
Is it problematic that 90% of my walking is done wearing noise-cancelling AirPods (probably)?
Is that ‘10,000 steps’ number that made us all surgically attached to our FitBits actually serving us?
Does it matter what time of day you go for a walk – and why?
In short – we get that walks are good for us, but how do we make them even better? There’s surprisingly little literature on this. In fact, you’re more likely to find practical advice on TikTok. So, here goes my hot take.
Is counting your steps a worthwhile pursuit? 🐾
Some people swear by counting their steps. I am one of those people, religiously subscribing to the popular goal of 10,000 steps a day (hence this card from a close friend…).
No, the 10,000 steps figure isn’t perfect science – that number was the somewhat arbitrary brainchild of a Japanese fitness company, who developed a fitness tracker called Manpo-kei – the Japanese word for 10,000. However, it’s a fairly achievable goal (fitness level dependent), and studies have since found it’s a good-enough guess for happiness levels and physical health. Personally, I prefer subscribing to an idiot-proof exercise system to bickering over whether 9,000 or 13,000 is an optimum number.
But this is personal. My suspicion is that, for those with a tendency towards perfectionism, obsessing over numbers or exercise/eating disorders, it’s worth questioning whether activity trackers will spiral into something unhealthy (this article for iNews is one extreme example). So if this is you, ditch the FitBit – it’s annoying to charge, anyway, and you’ll probably fare better without it. There’s also a study that suggests counting steps can reduce the enjoyment of a walk itself, which rather defeats the point from a mental health perspective.
In defence of the AirPodestrian 🎧
Again, I’ve noticed surprisingly little written about the relationship between earphone-wearing and mental health (is this aggressive censoring from the overlords at Apple?). AirPods, or equivalent, can support many mental health boosting things, e.g. phone calls with loved ones; listening to podcasts & audiobooks; uplifting music. I don’t know if that gets enough airtime, possibly because most of us are in a love-hate relationship with the earphones themselves (so useful yet so glitchy). All I know is, AirPodestrianism, as I just coined it, can be a balm during long solo walks.
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On the other hand, I often notice people (myself included) hinting that a headphone-free walk is somehow superior to one where you’re blasting Justin Bieber. Perhaps because it suggests an enviable inner calm; or steady levels of dopamine; or a dedication to greater presence and mindfulness. I think we’re all yearning for the feeling summarised in this essay from Haley Nahman, written for the no-longer-updated Repeller site (RIP):
All the little details conspired to a sum greater than their parts. I felt alive, present, connected. No longer the protagonist of my suffocating inner world but a character in my neighborhood. A little human on her way to buy garlic, sharing the sidewalk with local kids, breathing the oxygen expelled by local plants, misunderstanding the chatter of local birds.
‘A Quiet Case for Leaving Your Headphones at Home’ by Haley Nahman
It’s also safer to go headphone-free, especially in traffic-heavy areas – so it’s a nice skill to cultivate for those situations. But generally speaking, both modes – earphones or otherwise – have their benefits.
Be at one with nature 🍀
As far as boring wellbeing advice goes, ‘Get out in nature’ is on par with ‘go for a walk’. Yet, just 15 minutes of combining the two is a game-changer, according to this Time article (and a whole lot of other literature). A couple of suggestions: