Hear Me Out: Walking Is a Way To Get To Know Ourselves Better

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61
When my family lived in Spain, my mom used to drop my brothers and me off at school, then walk four miles with a group of other women expats. They met every morning to walk and talk. It was a ritual that led many of them to become lifelong friends.

As a young teenager, I thought this was the most boring “mom thing” that ever existed. Now, in my mid 30s, I get it.

Up 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 Gorge, or roamed through our neighborhoods for a couple of hours. It was a chance to step out of our own heads, talk about life, and marvel at small things: the crocuses peeking up above ground in February, an owl snoozing on a branch, the smell of cherry blossoms in full bloom.

When the pandemic first hit in 2020, I started to take myself on daily walks—sometimes three times a day, like a dog—because I knew I would always return feeling better than when I set out. 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 control in my immediate universe when the rest of it was spinning out. 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 us able-bodied people often take it for granted. Though, even as hot girl walks trend, walking is still too often viewed as “not enough” to truly count as “real” exercise. In a culture that generally measures self-worth based on maximizing productivity, walking can be seen as a waste of time. Why walk for an hour when you could run for 15 minutes and then get back to work?

But I’d argue that it is this slower pace that lets us 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 the more we age. But walking can help slow down this endless rush. The calmer, more ambling pace allows us to pay closer attention to what’s happening inside of us, and around us. When you’re biking or running, you’re typically more focused on moving forward, and you might not notice that giant banana slug or the hummingbird zipping around. But if we’re forced to take more time to get from point A to point B through a simple, repetitive motion, we’ll often end up looking inward, sometimes without fully realizing it. A 2021 study even found walking’s self-reflective benefits to be on par with what you could get out of a therapy session.

Walking can also slow down our sense of time. This is never more apparent for me than when I'm on a multi-day hike. Backpacking four or five days in the woods can feel like weeks. Walking a 700-mile pilgrimage over 45 days along the Camino del Norte and Primitivo in Spain last summer felt like six months. On these journeys, I feel like I’ve experienced a mini life within a life. Time stretches out, my senses sharpen, and my connection to the world around me deepens.

When all you really have to do each day is walk, eat, sleep, repeat, your mental space can expand. You have to listen to yourself with every step and face your issues more immediately without the distraction of regular life. Every single person I’ve met on one of these pilgrimages has been affected internally in ways they didn’t expect.

And in this slowed-down time, even when my feet hurt and I’m tired and I want to hurl my backpack over the mountain, I become more honest with myself. My inner voice gets louder, stronger, and I learn how to listen and trust that voice better. I learn how to maintain clearer boundaries, understand my limits, and believe in myself more. I learn how little I really need to be fulfilled.

And while a big 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 walks each week can give us the space to know ourselves better, whether we are alone or not.

Walking has become the place where I feel the most like myself. It is a reminder that in the end, despite all the noise of this world, life is to be enjoyed step by step.

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