Sacred Escape – On the Joys and Benefits of Dog Walking
As we eagerly await the spring equinox, there’s no avoiding the acknowledgement of a solemn anniversary: the introduction a year ago of COVID-19 lockdowns. Since then, life for everyone has changed drastically. One activity that grew in popularity for many people who found themselves largely trapped at home and grappling with the upheaval of daily routines was the enjoyment of the great outdoors. Driveways, sidewalks, neighborhoods, fields and forest trails became go-to locations, replacing shopping malls, restaurants, school hallways and office parks.
Now that most of us are connected virtually, getting active isn’t merely a doctor’s recommendation, but a social media trend. It’s easy to get lost in the digital media world of at-home workouts, transformation photos and fitness models. That’s not to say we haven’t found ways to cope indoors, too. In the end, however, getting healthy isn’t as complicated as it may seem on Instagram. Physical exercise can be as simple, and pleasant, as getting outside and walking. And yes, it is very possible to do this even in harsh New England weather.
Medical and exercise professionals say this low-impact activity helps maintain a healthy weight, strengthens bones and muscles, improves cardiovascular health, reduces pain and boosts circulation in the joints, improves posture, decreases the risk of some cancers and other terminal illnesses, and lowers the risk of conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Studies have suggested that brisk walking can add over 10 years to your life.
But that’s only part of it. Walking also provides numerous mental health benefits, from helping to improve mood, self-esteem, focus and sleep quality to easing depression, anxiety, stress and fatigue. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found a positive correlation between walking and creative thinking, claiming that “while research indicates that being outdoors has many cognitive benefits, walking has a very specific benefit — the improvement of creativity.”
For those who are hesitant about walking in the winter and early spring, I assure you that it is possible, and very beneficial. Not only does walking in the cold expend more calories, but it gives your heart a better workout — you burn calories both by walking and maintaining homeostasis.
As someone who has struggled with chronic anxiety much of my life, walking — specifically, walking my dog — has provided relief in many ways. For my 4-year-old Catahoula leopard mix Gracie and me, walking our neighborhood block or the trails of local forests is our sacred escape. These places free us from the confines of the household, the constant chatter of social media and the black cloud of bad news.
There are many places in the Merrimack Valley where one can bring four-legged friends. Some of our favorites include the trails in and around Winnekenni Castle in Haverhill, Plaistow Town Forest, Harold Parker State Forest, and Field of Dreams in Salem, N.H.
I want to conclude with some tips. First, if you usually listen to music while working out, switch things up and try a podcast. I love listening to podcasts on longer walks, and there are thousands of them that cater to all interests. Next, wear the right shoes — yours truly wore flip-flops for a relatively light 3-mile walk in the woods last summer. One broken sandal and a bloody foot later the lesson was learned. Furthermore, those looking for a more vigorous activity should vary your pace in intervals — increase your speed for 30 seconds one day, then for a minute the next. Also try swinging your arms to relieve subconscious tension — it might feel silly at first, but this is all about having fun while staying healthy. Just don’t forget to bring your mask!