STRONG BODY, STRONG MIND: Walk It Out

Amid the coronavirus crisis, a step challenge helps our fitness editor regain her footing.

Experience Life fitness editor Maggie Fazeli Fard walks on a sidewalk.

300K in 30 Days. The Challenge popped into my inbox in early April. At the time, Minnesota was about three weeks into social-distancing rules that had many of us stuck at home, tossed into the deep end of a “new normal” ­dictated by the ill-understood novel corona­virus. This new normal meant no health clubs, no restaurants, no travel, no visiting friends and family — really not much of anything beyond the absolute essentials for the foreseeable future.

The Challenge arrived when I felt set adrift, internally treading water in an ocean of fear, loneliness, and general anxiety. I wanted nothing more than to curl up with my cats and hibernate, which my therapist explained was a reasonable coping mechanism — a survival response of dissociating and disconnecting.

The Challenge arrived when I desperately needed a way to ground myself, to find some purchase beneath my feet.

300K in 30 Days. In other words: Take 300,000 steps over the course of a month. The Challenge, issued by my coach to his training clients, was nothing crazy. Ten thousand steps a day — “but it sounds cooler to say 300K in 30,” my coach wrote.

“Walking is the most underrated exercise, stress reliever, and ­adventure-sparker there is,” he continued. “Take those leisurely steps and spend a couple hours walking. Or do a vigorous walk and try to raise your heart rate and break a sweat.”

The thought of having a goal that I could plan my days around — and having an end date at a time when there was no clear end to our new way of life — made me feel excited, even hopeful.

Adding a competitive element made it even more appealing: Challenge participants could enter their step count into a spreadsheet that would monitor the month’s goal.

I didn’t hesitate to sign up.

My ramp-up was slow: After I’d spent a few weeks mostly alone (cats notwithstanding), it felt strange to encounter other people who were also out and about — walking, running, bicycling.

My body, too, needed to acclimate. As I was coming off of winter, my average daily step count hovered around half of my new goal. I was fit from regular strength and interval-running workouts, but walking, I knew, was not as effortless as we make it out to be.

“Walking is a physical wonder and a feat of incredible neurological acrobatics,” Feldenkrais instructor Nick Strauss-Klein, GCFP, once told me during an interview. “Humans have the capacity to walk for miles or even tens of miles every day.” (For more on walking, see “Relearn to Walk.“)

I set out to walk with purpose, with intention, with awareness. I set out to walk not only to feel better, but to ­really feel. I knew from past experience that walking helped me move through my emotions and my thoughts, both of which I have a tendency to get mired in. And the physical release helped me with digestion and sleep, both of which have a tendency to get disrupted by anxiety.

After the first week, I settled into a routine. Almost every morning, I walked a loop that took me around a nearby golf course, just short of 5 miles. Some afternoons, I’d also take a shorter walk around my neighborhood.

Because it was April in Minnesota, I walked in sun and snow; I watched trees, bushes, and flowerbeds bloom to life; I observed how the light changed day-to-day as we crept closer to May; I got to know neighbors I’d never seen before — from a distance, of course.

I surpassed the somewhat arbitrary 300,000-step goal and realized that there’s no real magic in 10,000 steps — or in any other number, for that matter. As with everything in fitness, and, I suppose, in life, consistency is key.

Consistency and adaptability. I took an intuitive approach to my walks, listening to my body and mind. One day I barely walked 4,500 steps, while on another I hit nearly 22,000. One wasn’t “better” than the other; I just let each walk be what I needed it to be.

And while my fear, my loneliness, my anxiety didn’t suddenly disappear because I was walking, I no longer felt like I was on the verge of drowning.

Each step — each time I planted one foot and then the other on the earth — reminded me that I was still here. Passing others who were taking similar steps reminded me that it’s possible to be grounded and present even when faced with a grim reality. Walking gave me hope that I could keep moving, even as the future was uncertain.

It gave me hope that together, maybe, we can move through anything.

is an Experience Life senior editor and Alpha Strong coach at Life Time.

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