Walking Is Medicine

“We ought to take outdoor walks, to refresh and raise our spirits by deep breathing in the open air.” — Seneca

Walking sign - green means go

At my first appointment with my therapist, she ended the session by giving me a few basic self-care practices to start working on. I had just started back on my antidepressants, after realizing that my depression had been gradually growing over the past few years. They all made sense, and were all things I knew were good for me, but there’s something to be said for hearing it from someone else. The suggestions were to eat nutritious meals and snacks, spend some time outside more days than not (at least 30 minutes), get however much sleep is “enough” for me each night, and try to walk 20-30 minutes a day more days than not each week.

The food, well that’s its own topic. So is the sleep, to be honest. But, getting outside for a walk every day, or most days, as easy as it sounds, it has proven to be one of the hardest self care practices for me to prioritize. Not to say that I don’t enjoy going for a walk outside, because I do. Especially when San Diego’s weather feels more like the central coast or the Pacific Northwest, with temperatures below 75°F, I really enjoy a brisk walk, or even a gentle stroll. Occasionally, I like walking with friends and chatting. Some days, I like listening to music, or to a podcast of the rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet, and lose myself in prayer. Frequently, though, I enjoy walking in silence, letting my mind wander. It was, in fact, on a walk, thinking about how I really needed to start prioritizing my walks when I came up with the idea for this post, and used the voice-to-text on my phone to make some initial notes.

beautiful green hills, buildings and a train track
I took this picture on one of my mid-afternoon walks. The view can be very calming.

I enjoy my walks. They clear my head, re-energize me during the afternoon slump, and generally improve my mood, at least in the short term. I know (academically) that they can also help with my depression in a larger way over the long term. Part of the challenges of recurring clinical depression, though, is it likes to shoot you in the foot at every turn. I know what’s good for me, but if I leave the slightest crevice open for depression to worm its way back in, my depression will convince me otherwise.
On days when I’m stressed or depressed, when depression is loud in my ear, my daily walk is one of the first things that will drop off my radar. It’s easy to find an excuse to not go outside when I’m busy at work, easy to listen to depression say that I can always go later, even if I know, in the back of my mind, that later will probably not happen. I’ll procrastinate each day until I either forget or run out of time to get outside and walk. Eventually, after enough days, the habit will be broken, and the thought of going for a walk won’t even occur to me anymore. Once the habit is broken, depression has more than a crevice to sneak back in. There is now an open door to start back down the spiral, as other types of self care fall off my radar one by one.

Beautiful branches and sky
Another picture taken on a recent afternoon, mood-lifting stroll.

It’s been studied, and exercise, even something as simple as walking, can help with depression management. Some of the elements that are suggested to help are the increase in endorphins (which are natural mood-lifters), the opportunity to clear your mind, and even exposure to vitamin D from the sun’s rays (when walking outside). From my own, anecdotal experience, I know that when I am more active, when I get my daily walks in, and when I’m able to get regular exercise in, like dancing, my depression symptoms are greatly reduced. There was a time when I had to wean myself off of my antidepressants, because they were causing insomnia from working too much in combination with my physical activity level at the time.

In life, though, especially life with clinical depression, there’s always a “but.” In the story of maintaining through exercise, for me, what happened was a twisted knee, then a pulled muscle. I gained some weight. I was able to maintain some level of activity, though, and through that activity, I was able to keep my depression at bay, though it was a little more difficult to get back to the groove I was once in. Then, I got pregnant with my son. I had some early term concerns that led to needing to keep things low impact only, which essentially eliminated my main activities at the time (using the elliptical at the gym and going to Zumba classes). Between the inability to do higher-impact activity and the fatigue that plagued the better part of my pregnancy, and the overall nausea I had in the first trimester, my activity level dropped to minimal levels. And, so, the downward spiral returned, and depression slowly became a larger part of my life, so slowly, though, that I didn’t even realize I was sliding back to the depths of depression until it was too late.

Depressed
The downward spiral of depression often leaves me wanting to hide from everyone and everything.

I know that walking is effective medicine. I’ve known this for years. When it comes to managing my depression, my walks are as critical to my treatment as my morning pills. Taking my morning pills is a habit I had to build, and is a treatment I had to realize was necessary to return to some semblance of emotional and mental health, which, in turn, affects my overall health. My morning pills are a critical step to wellness for me. In the same way, self care, especially in the form of daily (or near-daily) activity is critical to long-term stability. So, I made the decision to mentally categorize my daily walks with my morning medicine. It is a thing I have to do in order to keep myself healthy. In fact, I track both my meds and my walks in my bullet journal, as recurring tasks that should be completed daily. I also set up an outlook reminder to go for a walk every afternoon, and have added co-workers to this reminder, both for those days when I’d like company, and for added accountability.
Walking is medicine. It is something I have to do, whether I like it or not, whether I want to or not. It is something that needs to fit into my schedule more days than not. Especially if I want to get to the point where I can maintain balance without medication. If I want to get back to that point, I need to walk. As many days as I can. And, when walking is easier, it will be time to add in more exercises, maybe even the gym or exercise classes. Someday, between healing old emotional wounds through talk therapy and building a strong habit of physical activity, I hope to be able to keep my depression at bay without medication. But for now, I think I’ll go for a walk.

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