With major work deadlines looming, a wedding to plan, and the everyday mental drain of still (still!) living in a pandemic, the recent goal I’d set to get outside more often was not going the way I’d planned. But then, fortuitously, I was approached with an assignment by What’s Good to take a walk for my mental health each day for one straight week. (Thanks for the trend, TikTok!) I was close to saying “no” because the thought of being held accountable gave me hives—which is exactly what made me realize I had to do it.
It’s not that I totally overlooked self-care before this lofty endeavor. In fact, my go-to practices for supporting my sanity are generally pretty solid. I do yoga videos and exercise bike sessions at my apartment a few days a week; run the reservoir in Central Park once or twice a week; use the Headspace meditation app almost every day; sleep six-to-eight hours a night. I also take as many long baths as possible, rarely drink alcohol, eat mostly healthy, and when I remember, I dab lavender oil on my wrists before bedtime.
But, with a stressful work life and the continued toil of living in pandemic-era Manhattan, I’ll be the first to admit my spirits hadn’t been their highest in a while. Would a daily half-hour walk move the needle more than all these other habits for promoting a positive mindset? I sure hoped so.
For seven days, I scheduled 30-minute walks outside. I did five of them in Central Park and the other two wandering around Manhattan’s East Side. Call me type A, but I liked that scheduling time each day for a lengthy walk pretty much guaranteed I’d hit 10,000-plus steps a day and enjoy the little serotonin hit when my fitness tracker zapped and congratulated me for the achievement.
What I learned from taking a daily mental health walk surprised me. Here are my biggest takeaways; take what resonates, and toss the rest, friends.
1. The days you feel busiest are the days you need the walk most
On day one, I wound up walking for 56 minutes and 2.94 miles. Funny enough, out of all the days I walked, it was the one in which I felt the most frazzled and like I absolutely did not have time to step away from my inbox and pour myself a glass of water, let alone leave my apartment for a walk. After my stroll, though, I returned to my desk feeling way more grounded and calm. Right off the bat, I learned a valuable lesson in how carving out time for myself counterintuitively makes me feel like I have more time for work and to tackle other life stressors, not less.
2. Starting with a meditation can help you shift gears
To make the transition from desk stress to blue-sky bliss easier, I took to kicking off my walks with a moving meditation. I particularly loved Headspace’s “Mindful Coffee Walk,” “Add Some Joy,” and “Walking in the City” meditation tracks. They’re each about 10 minutes or less (the “Coffee Walk” track is only four minutes long!) and went a long way to help me shift gears and forget about my inbox woes.
3. Phoning a friend makes time fly
You’ve probably heard this suggestion before, but I will say that calling a friend on my walks really made the time go faster—so much so that, when I called a friend on my walks, I regularly found myself surpassing the 30-minute mark and ambling for 45 minutes, an hour, or even longer.
Not in the mood to chat with someone? Try listening to an uplifting podcast. My go-to’s have been “Hidden Brain” and “The Writers’ Co-Op,” but do some digging for the ones that pique your interest and keep you motivated to keep on walking.
4. Bring your phone—but set ground rules
Some people might disagree with my two previous points given that we’re so over-connected. And though leaving your phone at home might work best for some people for these kinds of outings, that wasn’t the case for me. So long as I had a hard embargo on not checking my email, I saw no reason to consider heading out without my phone. It’s all about how you use it, folks.
5. Take walks when you hit an afternoon wall
I found afternoon to be the sweet spot for my strolls. At this time, not only did they help break up the day and ward off the ol’ afternoon energy slump, but there are also generally fewer people out and about in the afternoon as compared to the morning or evening, so I felt more Zen navigating my way around the park or city streets. Even better, when I got back from these walks around 5 p.m., my urge to crank out another article or put out a garbage fire when I returned often dissipated, and I shifted into evening mode a bit early, leaving myself more time to cook up a nice meal or take a bath.
6. Don’t Push Through Pain
On the second day of this experiment, I pulled my back pretty badly. In a decent amount of pain, I exited the park and headed back to my apartment about 20 minutes into my walk. Yes, I know this means I technically didn’t complete the week-long challenge. However, it was a welcome reminder that part of looking after your mental health is knowing when not to push yourself. Rather than continue on in pain, I took solace in practicing self-compassion and calling it a wrap. After all, the whole point of it was to support my mental health, wasn’t it?
7. Pay attention to the natural world
While my Headspace meditation app helped me pay attention to the beautiful signs of spring around me, you don’t need technology to tell you to tune into it. Even if you aren’t taking your mental health walk through a park, you can still pause and contemplate trees on the sidewalk, the blue sky, or the pink shade of buildings under the glow of golden hour. Doing so will quiet your monkey mind for a bit (it worked for me!), and, if you commit to regular walks, it’s also pretty neat to note how many new leaves the tree on your block gains during the course of a week, two weeks, a month…and savor the seasons changing before your eyes.
As the week progressed, I can’t say I ever found myself truly looking forward to my daily mental health walk because the pressure to file a story, respond to an email, or take a work call always weighed heavily on me leading up to it. Still, I was pleasantly surprised that pretty much the moment I walked out of my lobby and took that first deep breath outside, I instantly felt calmer and more hopeful about the day ahead. So, despite those feelings beforehand, I’m planning on keeping up the routine—and, if I’m really lucky, hoping to upgrade it to an hour-long ritual that keeps my fitness tracker and frame of mind happy.