Walking brings joy to many of us and it can also act as a lifeline during difficult times.
Pip Wilcox shares her experiences of walking and how it's helped her cope with chronic illness.
My relationship with walking has been a potent one.
Going for what felt, at the time, like punishingly long walks along the Dorset coastline were a regular part of my childhood. I can understand now that my parents needed that outlet at the weekends as an antidote to their hectic working lives.
During my twenties and thirties, when many of my friends were more interested in partying (and recovering from partying) than they were in walking, they would endure rather than enjoy my appetite for long communal stomps.
At around the age of 40, after several years of struggling with various symptoms, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and ME. For the subsequent decade I felt as if I was on a frustratingly short piece of elastic. My body simply could not manage more than three thousand steps – and only a few times a week at best. This brought a deep sense of loss.
So, earlier this year, when me and the virtual membership community for midlife women that I’m the founder of decided to create some gentle accountability and support for each other by running a group 100-Day project, I chose to put walking at the heart of my 100-day experience.
In order to work with my chronic illness, I devised a graded exercise plan. I started walking 3,000 steps each day with the intention of increasing in 500 step increments every 10 days – until I made it to 8,000 steps. I’ve still got over a month to go, but already it has been transformative in myriad ways.
In order to fit this daily practice around my working life I’ve had to adopt a pragmatic approach. I’ve let go of my previous attachment to only walking in special and extraordinary places. Rather than hopping in the car to make a one-hour return trip to a beauty spot, I now set off from my front door and walk locally. As a result, I now feel so much more connected to the town in which I live.
Rather than hopping in the car to make a one-hour return trip to a beauty spot, I now set off from my front door and walk locally. As a result, I now feel so much more connected to the town in which I live.
As my steps have increased and I can walk further afield, the quirky streets and landmarks and shops that went largely unnoticed when I used to whizz past them in my car now feel like familiar friends. I’ve fallen in love with my neighbourhood all over again and am loving witnessing it in different weathers and at various times of day and days of the week. There’s something new to notice every time I leave my house.
The repeated experience of (mostly) honouring this daily walking commitment has brought a welcome sense of self-trust that I lacked before. There’s something wonderful about keeping a daily promise to myself.
Life has thrown some curve balls since my daily walking practice started and I am certain that I’m responding to these challenges with increased mental resilience. I feel more grounded.
An unexpected bonus has been having my husband’s walking company on most days. It’s been a lovely chance for us to connect with each other for an hour or so a day, away from doom-scrolling and work and the complications of life.
As I note the benefits of these daily walks, it’s the positive psychological impacts that are uppermost in my mind. There’s no doubt though that my body is grateful. It feels stronger, healthier and more capable.
I have needed to practise flexibility and self-compassion on those days when it has not been possible to either walk at all – or to walk as far as I had intended. This has helped me soften my previously all-or-nothing approach in which falling off the wagon would feel catastrophic. Now, I try and ignore the gremlin voices in my head inviting me to feel shame and disappointment in myself. I dust myself off, reflect on whether making some adjustments to my walking ritual would make it easier to stick at it – and get back out there.
The only things that would have made this experience any more pleasurable are:
These concerns fade into the background, though, compared to all of the riches I’ve experienced through the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Wherever you may walk, no matter how far, how often and when – I truly hope that you too get to experience some of these joys.