Walking To Nowhere
As I sit down to write this article, I wonder if any of you will be able to relate to what I am about to say, questioning if my experiences are too specific, too obscure. But, since you’re reading this, you know that I decided to proceed anyway; this is an article about my long-time hatred of exercise and my attempts to continue to move my body, for a greater purpose.
A Historical Snapshot
My problems with exercise started in my baby years. Diagnosed with low muscle tone, I didn’t learn to walk until I was two and a half.
I struggled with coordination throughout my childhood, likely not helped by the essential but heavy medication I was taking for childhood epilepsy.
Low marks for athleticism too: I had almost-failing grades for PE throughout my school career (yes, that is possible!) and was, more often than not, last choice for gym-class sports teams. When a ball came in my direction, I’d instinctively run away. On one occasion, in a burst of confidence which then turned to despair, I scored on my own team.
I played no team sports extracurricularly and dropped out of Scottish dancing (I couldn’t learn the moves for the highland fling), ballet (I could not execute and the teacher was emotionally abusive) and still cannot do the front crawl, after dozens of swimming lessons. But, I can tread water and keep myself afloat 🙂
Athleticism was not a part of my family culture as the focus was on reading and music, although my mother did cycle to work when it was not popular or trendy to do so.
I also have a history of childhood trauma, which resulted in me zoning out and dissociating because anxiety levels were so high. I often did not feel connected to my body. Getting my heart rate up through activity would also mimic the sensations of a panic attack.
Fits and Starts
Probably my happiest times being active were my 20s and 30s where I walked partway to work (my commute was longer then), feeling pride and accomplishment. I loved the idea of a destination and human-powering myself there. My biggest victory was walking once from South Burnaby, home to East Vancouver (Earthquake preparedness skills!)
I also experimented less successfully with going to the gym, exercise classes, riding an exercise bike, pilates and light weights.
Walking still gave me joy and purpose, however my route to work changed (enter downtown Vancouver office) where I was still walking, but walking much less. And even my walking was problematic because my bones started giving me more trouble. Over the past 10 years I have broken my feet about 5 times, part of an underlying health condition, which has been discouraging to say the least. And another unlikely barrier to vigorous walking has been my interest in taking photos, which has made walking become more like a stroll.
As I’ve said before, I have no previous pandemic experience and pivoting Willow Tree Counselling to become by phone and online only in March of this year came as a real shock. Now I was doing almost no walking (compared to my downtown Vancouver commute) and any walking I did would be for the sake of walking only. There was almost nowhere to go!
So I experimented with body-positive exercise videos, but I got injured. And discouraged. When I throw out my back, it usually takes me about 3 weeks to recover, at my age 🙁
So I was left with, “what can I do to move?”
A New Plan
Like many new plans, I wondered if this could be different. How could I make my exercise as low-barrier as possible?
I knew I needed to come up with some guidelines. I decided that the exercise should:
- Have a deeper purpose
- Be low-risk for re-injury
- Be flexible in approach
- Have flexibility in its execution
- Be process-driven, not results-driven
- Allow for a present-focus
- Work with my current schedule
- Be convenient
- Minimize self-consciousness
- Have benefits other than exercise
- Be evolvable over time
You will note that there is no reference to “fun” above, as exercise for me has never been synonymous with fun.
So, in reflecting on the above guidelines, I decided on walking around, and around and around a gravel field at the school across the street from my home. No phone. No music. No destination. Good shoes. And yes, to you, this may sound like a version of hell.
Reviewing The Plan
Let’s go back to the conditions and see how it fit for me:
Activity is key for managing my health condition long-term. Regular weight-bearing exercise is essential for my bone health. Feeling more confidence in my body’s ability to move is important.
Low Risk for Re-Injury
The field has more cushioning than cement. Paired with soft, supportive shoes, I am minimizing my risk of re injury. Walking is relatively uncomplicated.
Gentle commitment is key. Driving myself to maintain a rigid schedule will inhibit joy. Having a general guideline around when it’s likely to work best for me to walk and then modifying if life gets in the way works better for me.
I can approach this exercise by walking slowly, briskly, or even skipping if I want. I surprised myself by incorporating hopping (or what I am calling “organic hopscotching”) by hopping in-between patches of weeds and grass growing in the gravel, to work on my balance. And on other days, I don’t feel like doing that, and that’s ok.
Exercise that focuses on the experience of exercise can be fundamentally more motivating than to exercise to achieve a certain result. This is a great opportunity for me to check in with my body and see how it is receiving and experiencing the exercise, and to make adjustments as needed. Score one for body awareness.
As cliche as it sounds, I have to limit this exercise to one day at a time. If I think about how I can maintain this in future (for example, cold, driving rain, darkness, un-summery conditions etc.) I get super-discouraged. I’d rather take this day by day with an attitude of openness and curiosity.
Work With My Current Schedule
Doing my walk super-early in the morning, at a time when I normally get up anyways, works for me, particularly on days that I am not going to my downtown office. Using the advantage of working from home saves me time in the morning. Getting started early also helps to set a more peaceful intention for the start of the day.
The fact that the gravel field is right across the street from where I live is no accident. I can get there and get started quickly. Putting my walking clothes right next to my bed so that I can get dressed without delay also helps.
Minimize Self-Consciousness and Social Anxiety
I personally believe that it looks pretty weird walking round and round in circles. I like to do my non-sensical walking when most people are sleeping, thanks. And the joggers and cyclists that pass by are usually just passing by, doing their own thing. The field is in a bit of a valley too, which makes me feel a bit freer. And I don’t have to wear a mask since it’s just me.
Benefits Other Than Exercise
If you had a question about why I’m not bringing my phone/music with me, perhaps this will answer it: I wanted to approach this walking in circles as walking meditation. No apps here, just thoughts arise, I let them go, thoughts arise, I let them go. Easier to do when I’m walking to nowhere, doing something very repetitive. I have always been a reluctant meditator and even though I try to do some sitting meditation before I get out to the field, walking is a second chance of brining meditation intentionally to my day.
Evolve Over Time
I want to give myself the permission to see what each moment brings in terms of motivation and purpose. And I want the permission to make changes rather than not get locked into a rigid routine. What if I get bored? Maybe I’ll bring music. What if I feel like doing something other than walking? I tried using the school’s chain link fence and did some wall push ups, just because I wanted to see what that would be like. What if I want to change my days? Why not?
My reasons for walking nowhere may sound great on paper but there have been mental barriers. I have found myself laughing at some of the things I have come up with:
- There’s a sea gull in the field. Maybe I should go back home.
- There are crows in a nearby tree. I could get attacked. Maybe I should leave.
- The clouds look ominous. It might rain and I’ll get wet.
- It IS raining out. I might feel gross if I go out there.
- The weeds in the field are wet with dew. I could get soggy feet.
- I don’t have much time this morning. Maybe it’s not worth it.
- I’m too tired. I’ll be walking in slo-mo.
Indeed, I am very creative in my thought process! It is often interesting to try to move forward anyway to see what happens, and if not, just to try again the next day without catastrophizing the situation.
Here is what I have learned so far. If you are a reluctant exerciser, perhaps something here will resonate:
- Find your purpose: exercise without a deeper purpose can feel very pointless and de-motivating.
- Focus on process not result. This attitude has the potential to take self-imposed pressure out of the situation: There is no fail, just the doing itself.
- Make it easy. If you’re challenged in your motivation, make the activity as easy and low-barrier as possible.
- Consider an exercise buddy. This can decrease the possibility of cancelling the activity and you may have more fun too. Sometimes the time can fly by with a friend joining in.
- Make it convenient. Even though for some of us, COVID has increased personal time by eliminating things like commuting, most of us are still very busy. Can you slot it in at a time when it makes sense in your day? If you are never active after dinner, would something on a lunch break work better, for example?
- Stopping is not tantamount to failure. This myth has been one of my biggest barriers, especially given all of the injuries I have had. I’m trying to look at streaks of exercise as “chapters” in the big book of active movement, rather than an ending.
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