In 2012, I traded my car in for a bicycle. Within a couple months of the trade, I discovered that riding a bike around a city full of people texting and driving is completely terrifying. Since I value my life, I let my beautiful bike start to collect dust while I transitioned to the life of a walking commuter. Luckily, my one-mile radius included the essentials: a grocery store, dining halls, most of my friends, all of my classes, my office, bars (including my one true love), restaurants, and the football stadium. Almost anything outside of that radius was accessible by bus or carpooling with a friend. At some point, Uber came along and made any destination accessible.
Walking was immediately gratifying. I wasn’t using any gasoline to get to my destination. I was creating time for unwinding. With my relatively flexible grad school schedule, I was easily able to schedule in time for walking to and from meetings, classes, or events. And with the right gear, I could walk in nearly any weather condition. Most importantly, my daily routine was getting closer and closer to that of a character in a Jane Austen novel. All I needed was an uncomfortable, conservative dress, a bonnet, and better penmanship. Since the beginning of my walking commuter days, I’ve acquired none of the tools for a Jane Austen lifestyle, but I do have amazing calves.
At some point in grad school, I realized that walking helped me control my anxiety and depression. At times, it even felt like an anger management tool. I started walking between meetings, on writing breaks, early in the morning, or right at dusk. Sometimes I would just walk–with absolutely no objective or destination. Other times, I would listen to a podcast, call a friend, or write a draft of an emotionally-charged text message.
My body seemed to crave movement, but nothing rigorous. Just something that would get my legs moving so my brain could follow along–at a normal pace that didn’t make me feel like I had to sift through every one of my thousands of thoughts all at once.
When I got in a fight with my boyfriend, I’d pace around my neighborhood until my mind stopped racing. When I needed to make a decision, I let my feet talk it out with the pavement. When I needed to make a difficult call, I would put in headphones and walk along a pretty path so I could distract myself just enough to hold it together. Soon, I had myself a little habit. Walking became my free therapy.
I don’t just walk alone. Sometimes I invite others along with me or go on a walk to visit someone. Over the years, I’ve had many a life-changing conversation on walks. I’ve talked about relationships, family problems, stress from work, my struggles with weight and body image, and whether or not to move forward with big steps in life.
Once I started working full time, it was a no-brainer to become a walking commuter. At my last job, I walked for about 30 minutes each morning and afternoon, through a lovely neighborhood, lined with giant oak and pine trees. On Friday’s, I would treat myself to a bagel and coffee from Ideal Bagel.
When I moved to Rhode Island for a new job at a different university, I did my best to select a new apartment within walking distance of my office. I did a good job, but I definitely have an uphill-both-ways kind of commute. That’s okay, because on the days I really can’t handle the steep hills to or from work, I hop on a city bus or a university shuttle. I’m lucky to have those options–I bet Elizabeth Bennet would have killed for a shuttle for the times she didn’t want to show up at Pemberley lookin’ a hot mess.
My walks to and from work are my two favorite times of each day. Some days, I walk in complete silence, taking time to stop along the walk to look out on the river or peek into a store window. Some days I call a friend to catch up while I huff and puff from the hills. I may also listen to music or, more likely, podcasts on history, food, or budgeting.
On the days when I’m really going through some feels, I’ll spend the first half of my walk very focused on whatever made me mad/frustrated/sad/anxious/all of the above. Over the course of the walk, I shed most of those emotions and land in a much happier mood by the time I’m done. Realistically, not every walk is going to be enjoyable. I’ve absolutely experienced walks that make my day more challenging, either because my mood was never likely to change to begin with or because I encountered some form of a horrible human en route (lookin’ at you, car hecklers and people who litter). Even with those not-so-great experiences, walking almost always adds value to my day.
Being a walking commuter has become an essential part of my life–like eating, drinking, breathing. The benefits are multifaceted and far-reaching; it’s a practice that does good for my body, mind, and soul.
I think I benefit most from the separation. My morning routine is incredibly varied, though it inevitably ends with a hurried exit and a range of anxiety about whatever is waiting for me in the office. My morning walk helps me prepare for the day ahead. Granted, there are some days when I start my walk feeling anxious and, by the time I arrive at work, I’m only marginally less anxious. But that tiny little improvement is well worth it to me.
In the afternoon, my walk gives me the time and space I need to unwind from a long day in the office. I give my eyes a rest from screens. I give my mind a rest from overthinking. And I give my body fresh air and movement. It’s restorative and relaxing, even in the worst weather.
I also appreciate the consistency. Walking may actually be the only constant in my life. It’s a habit I carry with me to every place I live and every place I visit. It’s also the only thing I do every single day, regardless of whether I eat well, go to the gym, put on makeup, wear a matching outfit, or finish a project on time. At the end of each day, I know I’ve practiced self care in this one vital way.
While I don’t need any other reasons to choose to walk, I also love that I save money and generally have less stress in my life. I don’t have to share the road with a bunch of angry drivers (though I do have to dodge them every now and then). I don’t have to pay for gas or parking. I have a lot less fuss in my life too. I don’t have to remove snow from anything before I leave for work. I don’t have to deal with detours or traffic. Although, the mental image of traffic for walking commuters is actually quite funny to me.
Needless to say, I originally made the decision to be a walking commuter because I’m accident prone and I don’t think I need the added risk of cycling alongside college students on their way to exams. And now I have a daily practice that keeps me relatively sane, despite society’s best efforts to break me down.
Normally my posts would end with some sort of call to action. But instead, I’m going to ask you some questions:
Why can’t you become a walking commuter?
Do you have any consistent daily routines that improve your mental health?
What’s stopping you from taking time out of each day for intentional self care?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Strong mental health is a journey, but we’re all in it together.