Think that there’s nothing much to gain from a simple morning walk? Think again. Writer Jess Dixon went on an early morning walk every day for a month and the mental results were remarkable, she writes.
Fitness has never been an easy or simple thing for me. Towards the end of 2019, however, I’d finally round a regime that worked for me: a combination of pole dancing (which I love for its feminist and mutually supportive ethos), swimming and working with a body-positive personal trainer at the gym. Then lockdown happened and all of those options disappeared for well over a year.
I tried a few home workout programmes, but none of them stuck. Serious fitness enthusiasts might swear by high-intensity interval training (HIIT), but it made me feel like I was going to die. So, I decided to go back to basics. Before I was a freelancer, I used to walk to and from the train station for my commute each day, and then miles around the sprawling university campus where I worked. Working from home has been brilliant for me in many ways, but swapping out that movement-friendly schedule for ten-hour stints at my desk inevitably saw my fitness level plummet.
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I plugged in my long-neglected Fitbit and decided to focus on just getting 10,000 steps in each day. I experimented with a few different strategies and found that taking a 60-90 minute walk (which usually amounts to around 8,000 steps) first thing in the morning before breakfast works best for me.
While recent tweaks to my diet and light exercise regime have resulted in me losing two stone, the benefits of my long walk each morning go far beyond numbers on the scale. Here are just some of the positive outcomes I’ve enjoyed:
Increased focus and creativity
Who hasn’t zoned out at their desk after their morning meeting or during the 3pm slump? Prior to taking up walking, I found it difficult to stick to a morning routine that would get me into a focused state for work. Getting fresh air and exercise first thing, however, has completely transformed that. Instead of being tempted to mindlessly scroll social media for an hour, I’m now ready to get to my desk and dive right into work.
According to business psychologist Jan P. de Jonge, another benefit of walking is that it can provide a boost of creativity. This is supported by research from Stanford University which found that walking promotes the “free flow of ideas“.
stylis“Walking helps you create new ideas,” de Jonge says. “The advice is clear: to walk is to take steps in a beneficial direction.” As a professional writer who makes my living from my creativity, I often have my best ideas when I’m out for my morning walk.
Lower stress and anxiety levels
My stress levels and feelings of anxiety skyrocketed when Covid hit. This was far from a unique experience — in fact, some experts have called the mental health impact of the last year “the second pandemic”.
I spoke to Chloe Clark, a sports massage therapist and personal trainer who runs Astral Fitness in Hinckley, Leicestershire. She encourages her clients to walk each day, preferably in a green space. She told me about the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”.
“It’s about absorbing the greenery and getting away from the road,” she explains. “There’s something about the stillness of nature that helps you feel better.” I’ve certainly noticed that my stress levels have lowered and I’ve been better able to cope with pandemic-induced anxiety since I started my morning walking routine.
More motivation to do other types of exercise
Until I’m vaccinated and feel safe going back to the gym and the pool, I’m trying to incorporate other types of fitness into my week. The increased energy, strength and stamina from my daily walk has made this easier. I now do a short yoga practice most days and try to fit in a stationary bike ride or half an hour of hula hoop dancing a few times a week.
“The more you move, the more you have the energy to move,” Clark says. “Your body is very clever at evolving to its circumstances.”
She also recommends walking as a supplemental activity for people who do other forms of exercise. “If you’ve got delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after a heavy workout like lifting, a HIIT class or a run, walking can be a really good way to get the blood and oxygen back into the muscles,” she says.
Reduced dependency on caffeine
I love my coffee and often joke that I will give it up when someone pries it from my cold, dead hands. But it is possible, as the saying goes, to have too much of a good thing. I realised that my caffeine habit was straying into problematic territory when I found myself drinking up to eight cups a day.
I still enjoy two or three cups most days, but getting more of my energy from movement and being outside feels much healthier than relying on the artificial jolt of alertness from a double espresso. Increasing my movement has also improved my sleep, which no doubt has had a tremendous impact on my overall energy levels.
More chances to catch up on media I enjoy
Clark recommends walking without distractions. Though I can absolutely see her argument, I’m not there yet! In fact, listening to an audiobook or podcast while I walk has made it into something I look forward to doing.
My partner works on a different schedule and wakes up later than me, so my morning walk is something that I do alone. Having an hour or so in the day that is just for me, where I can listen to whatever I feel like listening to, has been a great addition to my self-care routine.
The takeaway? Fitness isn’t one-size-fits-all
If you’ve ever Googled “What is the best workout programme?” then you’ll be aware of the myriad of information that is out there – some good, some bad and some directly contradictory. How are any of us supposed to know what we should be doing?
Experimenting and finding the right exercise regime for me has reminded me of something we should all know but often forget: fitness is not a one-size-fits-all game. Our bodies, minds, schedules, lifestyles and goals are all different.
The best exercise programme? The one you’ll stick to – and that usually means the one that you enjoy the most. I’ll certainly carry on walking in the mornings, whatever other changes may occur.
Looking for some light exercises to support your walking? Head over to the Strong Women Training Club to find hundreds of How To videos, designed to help you stretch, lengthen and strengthen.
Images: Getty/Jess Dixon
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