In 2007, author Nita Sweeney suffered one devastating loss after another. That year, seven of her close friends and family members died.
Sweeney already struggled with chronic depression and bipolar disorder. But with so many loved ones passing away in such a short period of time, she fell to new depths, both mentally and physically.
“I was just emotionally paralyzed, and I started to gain a lot of weight,” she said. “I was in such bad physical shape that even walking around the block was kind of a stretch.”
Sweeney finally climbed out of her despair by putting one foot in front of the other. From 2007 to 2017, she went from barely being able to get out of bed, to walking every day and clocking many miles per week. Today, she walks alone, with her husband, in groups, with her dog, and whenever or wherever she finds an opportunity.
She says the rhythm of walking heals her.
“I don’t know the science, but I know that there is something that happens when I feel the sway and rhythm of my body and my arms swing,” she said.
This feeling has carried Sweeney through three full marathons, 26 half marathons, and more than 60 shorter races. Her running is slow (and mixed with lots of walking), but Sweeney isn’t driven by speed, medals, or even physical fitness. For her, it’s a “mental health journey.”
In her upcoming book “Depression Hates A Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink,” Sweeney describes how she was able to find emotional balance one step at a time.
“I know there are physical benefits. When I stop walking, I gain weight. When I walk again, I lose it. It’s that simple,” she said. “But for me, it’s more emotional than physical. There is something about slowing down to the pace of the walk, that lets things drop away in a way that they don’t with other exercise.”
When you add in the proven physical benefits that come from walking, it almost sounds too good to be true. The 2015 report from Harvard Medical School titled, “Walking for Health: Why this Simple Form of Activity Could Be Your Best Health Insurance,” discusses solid science that shows walking can lower your blood pressure, fight heart disease, reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes, and help you lose weight.
Walking for Peace of Mind
It’s clear we don’t walk as much as we used to. In the past, we had no choice. Unless you owned a horse or canoe, walking was the only way to get around. With the rise of cars and a growing distance between home and work, walking has become quaint, almost obsolete. It is no longer a reasonable option when you have places to go and people to see.
Modern transit allows us to cover far more ground in less time. But while walking may not be practical for daily travel, it could help us better handle our hectic schedules.
One reason walking has become a priority for Sweeney is that it helps her work off anxiety.
“It’s a way for me to calm down,” she said. “I just need a little bit of the rhythm, not much, but I just feel better.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly, says that, psychologically speaking, “walking is simply amazing.” She points to research proving that walking as little as 12 minutes can elevate your mood for several hours.
“When we walk, we are actually able to leave our troubles behind on physical and metaphorical levels,” Manly said. “The psychological freedom that comes with walking can create an inner spaciousness and healing that is beyond compare.”
Manly observed walking’s healing power when she worked with juveniles on probation. She would often do “walk and talk” therapy with these kids, and saw them thrive with the sense of freedom that walking delivers.
“Their troubles and issues felt less pressing when they were outside walking with me,” she said. “Adults can benefit in the same way.”
Manly takes her own medicine. Her mornings always begin with a walk in a nearby park. If there’s a break in her client schedule, she’ll grab another five- to 10-minute walk around the block to clear her head and move her body.
“For me, a day without a walk is like a day without water.”
The Best Exercise
We all know we should move more, but we may dismiss walking because it seems far too basic to be a viable or effective fitness option. It doesn’t seem to provide enough of a challenge to make a difference.
Dr. Eugene Charles, a Manhattan-based chiropractor and director of the Applied Kinesiology Center of New York says his patients are usually more interested in Zumba, cross-fit, Pilates, hot yoga, or another exercise of the moment than they are with walking.
But Charles says walking should be everyone’s primary exercise. He recommends 45 minutes a day for those who want to lose weight, 30 minutes for those trying to maintain their weight, and any time you’re feeling down. Charles says walking will make all of your other physical endeavors that much better—even if you’re already very active.
“I believe all exercise is good but walking is the best, because it really suits the human frame,” Charles said. “Getting the arms and legs and moving like that is a neurological tonic. It is as close to a gosh darn panacea as we have.”
If the goal of exercising is a more functional mind and body, Charles says walking accomplishes this better than anything else. He describes walking as a way to tune up your mind and body. Walking makes you stand up straighter, it increases circulation to the entire body and sets it to a soothing rhythm. It also improves balance and coordination.
Walking does all this by engaging what is known as the “cross-crawl” mechanism, where your right arm and left leg (and vice versa) move back and forth in tandem. This symmetrical crossover pattern is what babies develop as they learn to crawl, and is found to be essential to both their physical and cognitive development.
Charles says whether it’s crawling, walking, or running, this cross-lateral motion helps align both your body’s structure and your brain, by bridging its right and left hemispheres.
“My opinion is that walking stimulates the cerebellum, which helps with memory, cognition, and can prevent Alzheimer’s and Parkison’s. I tell my patients, ‘If you walk you’ll get smarter. If I’m wrong, you’re just going to be in great shape,”’ Charles said.
Other aspects of walking also contribute to your health with every step. Proper heel to toe form stimulates the receptors in the bottom of your feet to relieve stress throughout your body and pump oxygenated blood up to your brain. The swinging of your arms stimulates your lymphatic system to pump waste out of your blood.
In short, regular walking makes you better equipped to handle life.
One of the best things about walking is how easy and accessible it is. All you need is a dry path (or a treadmill) and a decent pair of shoes.
The hardest part, however, is getting started.
Sweeney says her depression and bipolar disorder can still hold her down, but if she can find some momentum for a walk, she knows things will get better.
“You just have to push back a little. It doesn’t have to be that much,” she said. “If I can just get myself moving at all, then everything else conspires to help me move wherever I’m heading.”
Of course, there are also benefits from strenuous exercise that leaves you huffing, puffing, and sore the next day. But it doesn’t have to be part of your walking routine. Charles says to take it easy, especially if you’re in pain, weak, or just starting out.
“You can make it as sublime, peaceful, and rhythmic as you want. It’s really up to you,” he said. “Even if you walk at a snail’s pace, it’s still healthy for you.”
Seasoned walkers often advise that you get more out of your walk if you leave your gadgets behind. Let your arms swing. Let your mind wander. Notice the details in the world around you. Enjoy the moment.
Caleb Backe, a personal trainer and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, says walking works best when we take the chance to unplug. He prefers to walk in silence.
“Walking in silence with yourself, ideally in a natural setting, allows for true introspection,” he said. “You’ll recognize a good walk when you get back home and feel like a better version of yourself.”
Sweeney is part of a walking group to help keep her motivated and to provide a sense of community. But she says these group walks are no replacement for her quiet walks alone, which she considers “almost sacred.”
“It’s a special time with myself,” she said. “I like walking with my husband, but there’s something about just being out there alone that is a respite from the craziness of life.”