Even celebrities have taken to walking—everyone from Shawn Mendes to Dolly Parton is espousing the virtues of the stroll. “I do my best thinking when I walk,” Parton explained of her partnership earlier this year with Apple Fitness+, which capitalized on the moment with Time to Walk, a programming series for users to listen to curated audio stories while they get their steps in. Newer episodes featuring actor Gina Rodriguez and fitness expert Jeanette Jenkins, as well as walking playlists curated with music from Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, launched over the summer.
All this tallying, which has evolved into dinner-table one-upmanship, goes beyond the mania that has consumed essayist and competitive step-counter David Sedaris and other people he wryly identified in The New Yorker as being “obsessive to begin with.” Walking’s cardiovascular and immune-boosting benefits alone caused Thomas Frieden, M.D., the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to refer to the low-impact exercise as “the closest thing we have to a wonder drug.” Walking is beneficial to your mental health, too, and avid walkers tend to have lower rates of stress, anxiety, depression, and improved cognition: A new yearlong study of mild cognitive impairment and exercise identified brisk walking as a way to improve brain health as we get older. “Walking decreases the rate of regular age-related mental decline, and Alzheimer’s disease as well,” confirms Kirk A. Campbell, M.D., an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Health. But even if you can’t get in the recommended 10,000 steps a day, any amount is worth feeling good about, says Joshua Dines, M.D., a New York–based orthopedic surgeon who treats players on the Mets. “My entire family has been walking, partially as a way to get out of the house,” Dines says, noting yet another benefit: “It’s good to get outside. In the game of life, walking is never a bad thing.”
Friends, family, and strangers have all relayed similar stories about the walking habits they developed during the pandemic, that they have become lifelines—and have helped manage anxiety. Simone Waugh, a 37-year-old Manhattan-based project manager, started walking as a way to honor Ahmaud Arbery, who was fatally shot last year #runningwhileblack in Georgia. “I tried to walk in my 20s and it was kind of lonely. I didn’t know how to connect with others, or that there were communities,” Waugh says, revealing that she recently started a walking group with friends to raise awareness around #walkingwhileblack. Because simply walking as a person of color can be a fraught experience. In a news analysis conducted by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union, 55 percent of pedestrian violations in Jacksonville, Florida, were given to Black people, who made up just 29 percent of the city’s population at the time. The local sheriff claimed ticketing was to keep people safe, as Jacksonville has one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in the country, but the report couldn’t find a correlation between where people were ticketed and where they were being killed. New organizations, such as Hike Clerb and GirlTrek, are sprouting up to increase interest among women, and specifically women of color, in going for walks outdoors so they can collectively—and safely—heal in nature. Because while walking, “one lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it,” the essayist Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful book Wanderlust, A History of Walking. Published in 2000, long before COVID-19 entered our vernacular, Solnit’s work argues for the necessity of preserving the time and space walking requires in our increasingly isolated and accelerated world. “On foot everything stays connected,” she suggests.
There’s also a lesson here in being kinder to ourselves—and to our bodies. “Walking may not help you reach your fitness goals, but it’s a great way to start,” says Dines. “One day you can go a little farther, and then even farther—or it might lead you to doing other forms of exercise.” Those months I spent slowly moving up- and downhill with my mother ended up being a gateway to a more steady workout regimen: I actually look forward to sessions with my virtual trainer now, and to my regular yoga practice. And my relationship with my mother, whose cancer is in full remission, is stronger than ever. We still walk almost every day while talking about this new phase of the pandemic, and how lucky we feel to have made it to the other side moving at our own pace, one foot in front of the other.