WWhen my family lived in Spain, my mother dropped my brothers and me off at school and then walked four miles with a group of other female expats. They met every morning to walk and talk. It was a ritual that made many of them friends for life.
As a young teen I thought this was the most boring “mother thing” that ever existed. Now, in my mid-thirties, I get it.
Until my recent move from Portland, Oregon, I had a weekly walking date with one of my closest friends. For years, rain or shine (and usually rain), we met on Sundays and walked the network of footpaths through Forest Park, hiked waterfall trails in the canyon, or spent a few hours wandering our neighborhoods. It was a chance to get out of our own heads, talk about life and marvel at little things: the crocuses peeking above the ground in February, an owl sleeping on a branch, the scent of cherry blossoms in full bloom .
When the pandemic first hit in 2020, I started taking myself for daily walks—sometimes three times a day, like a dog—because I knew I would always come back better than when I left. I lived alone and these little walks soothed my anxiety, reminded me to slow down and take life hour by hour or minute by minute and focus my attention on what I could be control in my immediate universe while the rest of it revolved. They also made me feel more like I was in the world, less isolated.
The benefits of walking for physical health, mental well-being and creativity are well documented. Walking is a natural stress reliever and we able-bodied people often take it for granted. Although, despite the trend of hot girl walks, walking is still too often viewed as “not enough” to really count as “real” exercise. In a culture that generally measures self-esteem based on maximizing productivity, walking can be seen as a waste of time. Why walk for an hour when you can run for 15 minutes and then get back to work?
But I’d say it’s this slower pace that allows us to get to know ourselves better – and that’s one of the most underrated benefits of walking.
Life can be chaotic and seems to speed up as we get older. But walking can help slow down this never-ending rush. The calmer, more meandering pace allows us to pay closer attention to what is happening within and around us. Usually when you’re cycling or running you’re more focused on moving forward and you may not notice that giant banana snail or the hummingbird flying around. But if we are forced to take more time to get from point A to point B through a simple, repetitive motion, we will often look inward, sometimes without fully realizing it. In fact, a 2021 study found that the self-reflective benefits of walking are comparable to what you could get out of a therapy session.
Walking can also slow down our sense of time. This is never more apparent to me than on a multi-day trek. Four or five days of backpacking in the woods can feel like weeks. Last summer, walking a 700-mile pilgrimage over 45 days along the Camino del Norte and Primitivo in Spain felt like six months. During these travels I feel like I experienced a mini life within a life. Time stretches out, my senses sharpen and my connection to the world around me deepens.
Just walking, eating, sleeping, repeating every day can expand your mental space. You need to listen to yourself every step of the way and face your problems more directly without the distractions of ordinary life. Every person I’ve met on one of these pilgrimages has been touched inside in a way they didn’t expect.
And in this slower time, even when my feet hurt and I’m tired and I want to hurl my pack over the mountain, I’m becoming more honest with myself. My inner voice is getting louder, stronger, and I’m learning how to listen and trust that voice better. I am learning how to maintain clearer boundaries, understand my limits and believe in myself more. I am learning how little I really need to be fulfilled.
And while a great hiking adventure like the Pacific Crest Trail or Camino de Santiago isn’t a possibility or even a desire for many people, I’d still argue that taking regular weekly hikes can give us the space to get to know ourselves better, or we are alone or not.
Walking has become the place where I feel most myself. It is a reminder that despite all the noise of this world, you should ultimately enjoy life one step at a time.