Taking a daily evening walk can help you get or keep fit, and can help improve your mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
No-one could deny that 2020 was an extremely challenging year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the significant consequences – reported in many countries – is a marked decline in people’s mental health. Lockdown, isolation, illness, bereavement, concerns over financial security, job losses … are all contributing to anxiety, insomnia, depression, and suicidal thoughts. As a result, calls to mental health helplines have risen. Prescriptions for antidepressants have reached an all-time high. At the same time, over-stretched health services are unable to provide essential and potentially life-saving talking therapies.
I am no mental health specialist. However, over the years I have suffered from black clouds of depression. I’ve received my fair share of colorful pills and helpful therapists. I also am totally convinced that regular exercise – in my case walking and cycling – has a significant, positive impact on my mood.
I’m not saying anything new. The benefits of regular exercise are well-known. Way before the appearance of the coronavirus I published a post here on the Health Benefits of Hiking. It listed no fewer than 23 ways that hiking makes you healthier. While some of these are purely physical benefits such as strengthened muscles, increased bone density, enhanced cardiovascular health, cleaner lungs etc., many of them refer to mental health benefits such as reduced tension, decreased anxiety, and improved mood.
However, I am aware that it’s easy to give the impression that hiking refers to a major day-long adventure that has to be planned in advance and undertaken occasionally. There’s nothing wrong with that approach – and of course this blog is packed with ideas for where to go walking – but in this post I would like to focus on something different.
Take a daily evening walk
Back in 2009, Liz and I decided to take a short after-dinner walk every evening. I have to admit, on top of the need to get exercise, another driving force behind this decision was to get a bit of peace and quiet! Back in 2009, all four of our children were living at home. They were aged between 17 and 23, and much as we loved their company, it was refreshing to get away for a while every evening to have a good chat about things (including them). It soon became a habit. So much so that we break it only if the weather is extremely severe, which is only on very rare occasions. (We did venture out in a thunderstorm once; and vowed never to do that again). Indeed, we reckon that we walk 360 evenings a year.
In the dark cold winter months, it really is a short walk. It’s a two-kilometer circuit that takes just half an hour. As soon as the evenings become warmer and lighter we extend the route to three or four kilometers, depending on other evening commitments.
Of course, I fully understand that “evening commitments” are major obstacles to a daily evening walk. We can all find plenty of stuff to do after our evening meal to occupy us until it’s time to head bed-wards. But everything is a choice, isn’t it? We could choose to sit down and watch the TV or scan the news on our phone or do the ironing or write a blog post or email a friend or paint the spare room …
Some of these will be higher on our lists of priorities than others. But what can be more of a priority than our physical and mental health? And as – hopefully – no-one is forcing us to do these chores, we should all be able to make a conscious decision to re-schedule them, or put them on hold for 30 or 45 minutes.
I’m also aware that not everyone shares the same family circumstances as Liz and I. We are in our sixties and our children have left home. So we can very easily choose to go for a walk after clearing up after our evening meal. If you have a baby or young children, it’s more difficult. So here are a few suggestions:
- Wrap baby up warm and take him or her with you in the pram or push-chair.
- Take baby with you in a sling.
- Leave one parent with the baby and go a walk by yourself or with a neighbor.
- Invite your regular babysitter to babysit for 30 minutes.
If you are a single person, you may not feel like walking the dark streets alone. So why not meet a friend at the same time each evening?
An opportunity to walk and chat
On our walks, the children still crop up as discussion topics from time to time, but our evening walks give us the opportunity to discuss other matters, such as books we are reading, news items, work, and hobbies. Indeed, to return to where I started – mental health issues arising from COVID-19 – going an evening walk with your partner or a friend or neighbor is a highly beneficial way to counteract lockdown anxiety. Our eldest son has also taken up the concept of a regular evening walk, although he walks much further than us, and uses the time to call up siblings or friends and have a good chinwag with them. I don’t want to make any promises, but I confidently anticipate that after most evening walks, if not after every one, you will feel more relaxed and less anxious. Certainly more so than you would have done if you just collapsed in front of the TV after your evening meal.
Make it a New Year’s Resolution?
I’m not a great one for making New Year’s Resolutions, but if you are, then taking a daily evening walk would surely be a good one to make. If you have a fear of failure, perhaps you could ease the pressure on yourself. For January you could commit to an evening walk four times a week, to get into the swing of things and introduce your new routine gradually. By February you could increase the frequency to six. Come the warmer spring evenings and you’ll be out there every evening!
Looking for a New Year’s Resolution? What about deciding to take a short walk every evening? It has physical and mental health benefits that are especially important in these COVID days.Tweet
However, for these dark January evenings I would recommend beginning with a short, 2 km walk. You can easily calculate a 2k route by using Google Maps Pedometer, although I find Gmap Pedometer easier to use. I’m not talking about walking in the countryside in the winter months, but along your local streets.
Another tip is to install a pedometer app on your phone. This will show you the distance covered as well as the number of steps taken, time taken, calories burnt etc. And it will give you cumulative figures so you can see how much distance you’ve covered in a week. If you are a goal-setter it will help you achieve them. If not, seeing that you’ve walked 20 km this week – just in the evenings – will surely encourage you. Also useful in the winter months is a fluorescent jacket.
And the distances will soon add up. Liz and I walk over 1000 km each year in the evenings. That means that since we started we’ve walked around 13,000 kilometers. In other words, we’ve just reached Cape Town.
This evening we start on the return journey.