clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Going for a quiet walk can help get us through coronavirus crisis

This simple, free activity can serve as an anchor for people of all demographic groups regardless of fitness level.

A resident of Mount Prospect takes a walk Wednesday morning.
Thomas Frisbie | Sun-Times

As the COVID-19 pandemic seizes the globe, rates of infection and death continue to rapidly climb in the United States, and we have not yet reached a peak. Equally concerning, there will likely be mounting cases of mental health issues as many individuals experience countless hardships. During periods of self-quarantine and other distancing measures, social isolation skyrockets due to a lack of connection with the physical world. As a result of social isolation, cases of loneliness, anxiety, and depression will rise to worrisome levels.

As businesses and public areas temporarily shutter, most people feel a desperate need to establish healthy routines. Social media platforms may encourage trendy exercise streaming services or immune-boosting diets to address wellness. However, we believe that a simple, free activity can serve as an anchor for people of all demographic groups regardless of fitness level: the humble daily walk.

Walking provides countless benefits, including maintaining weight, easing joint pain, decreasing risk of cardiovascular diseases, combating depressive symptoms, improving memory, and lengthening lifespans. Walking has also been shown to improve immune system function, perhaps by causing changes in important antibodies or reducing stress hormones. Walking can help prepare your body to ward off potential infection. But more importantly, walking can provide mental health and social benefits that combat the negative effects of social isolation.

Social distancing during COVID-19 discourages being among large crowds or in close contact with strangers. And some may be nervous about contracting the virus from others they encounter while outside. However, be assured that getting outside for a walk or other activity is safe and encouraged. Public health officials support outdoor activities, even in times of pandemic. Recent shelter-in-place mandates for the state of Illinois permit individuals to “to engage in outdoor activities like walking, hiking, or running”, as long as the social distancing requirement of 6 feet between people. Officials also note to pick paths that are less crowded, and avoid individuals coughing or sneezing to prevent accidental inhalation of aerosols.

True, some individuals are experiencing the pinnacle of stress and hardships. Physical and outdoor activities may feel out of reach or not a priority. However, as nurse researchers who study how to improve physical activity for adults in Chicago communities, increasing daily walking time is something most people can realistically and easily do to improve physical and mental health, especially during difficult times.

To garner the greatest effects of walking to cope and support health, mindfulness plays an important role. During mindful walking, pay careful attention to all five senses with each breath and step. Take time to notice the sounds and sights of nature. Spring is now here: Note the new growth emerging from the winter ground. Actively take deep breaths, and as you inhale, count to three, and exhale to a count of three. While we do have to maintain a safe social distance right now, we can still smile and nod as we pass each other. Simply acknowledging community members can bolster a sense of social belonging.

While the future seems uncertain right now, we can take part in activities that help our mind and body. Our best defense against the ill repercussions of social distancing may be as simple as taking a walk.

Shannon Halloway is an assistant professor at Rush University College of Nursing and a former Public Voices Fellow.

Susan Weber Buchholz is a professor at Rush University College of Nursing and a former Public Voices Fellow.