Walking has never really been high on my list of recreational outdoor activities.
I’ve enjoyed walking for its utility. When I lived in New York City, walking was often the easiest and fastest way to get around. Even living in Anchorage without a car, I figured out ways to walk to the grocery store or a friend’s house.
I knew in the back of my mind that walking was good for me. At the same time, I didn’t believe that something so relatively easy could be that good for me. Surely fitness and health must hurt at least a little bit, and walking never hurt.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t live in New York anymore. I live in Alaska — more specifically, Palmer. We have some lovely trails and even a couple bike paths out here, but our city is not exactly designed to facilitate pedestrian access.
We have some walkability in the downtown core of Palmer, which is part of what makes it so attractive to visit. But if I want to get to the grocery store, the post office, home, to my friend’s house and to the trailhead, having a car makes that whole process a heck of a lot faster.
When the pandemic hit, I noticed more people suddenly outside walking in my neighborhood; I also noticed my own daily movements plummeted. Not normally one to track steps, the first check-engine light that I wasn’t moving as much as usual was my waistband tightening.
My usual eating patterns and exercise routines hadn’t changed. So, I troubleshooted. I compared my pre-pandemic stats that my iPhone had secretly collected to my “new” normal and was astonished at what I found. My pre-pandemic average steps in a day were sky-high compared to my habits in quarantine life. Apparently, trips back and forth to the office and the grocery store really add up! How was it possible that now, in lockdown, I could only take 750 steps in an entire day?!
Couple this with a feeling of social isolation and the need to distance, and re-enter: walking. My new recreational outdoor activity.
I’m allergic to dogs, so unless I’m borrowing someone’s pet I don’t typically have one to walk. For me, this means when I’m out and about alone in my neighborhood walking, I feel self-conscious. Getting into the routine has felt unintuitive.
I joke that only psychopaths walk for its own sake, with no animal to exercise — but I joke about this to mask how awkward I feel. I suppose dog walks are to exercise what cigarette breaks are to work, in that they provide a clear reason for humans to exercise or take a minute away from the desk.
Contrast that clear purpose with me over here, with no dog to walk. Just ambling around my neighborhood. Here I am, way out here in the relative boonies of Palmer, pacing the streets, and I feel suspicious or somehow guilty. What are my motives, anyway? Surely I wouldn’t be out here just for exercise.
I have some walking-for-its-own-sake hangups to overcome. One crutch and an additional incentive is pairing up with others. It is perfectly normal to decide to go for a walk with other people. (Even more normal if one or both has a dog to walk, but I digress.)
Walking is how I’ve done most of my in-person socializing during the pandemic. It’s easy to maintain distance. It’s not just standing around outside shivering. And the focus is on (usually) beautiful natural environs. I’m never sad that I met up with a friend for a walk.
And, even though I wasn’t into counting my steps before, now it’s a relief to see when my count is relatively “normal” even after another pandemic day working from home.
I suspect that post-pandemic I’ll once again be a utility walker. Sure, when I visit new cities I’ll do that favorite thing of mine, which is to spend entire days walking, ducking into cafes, museums, shops and parks, and walking some more.
But in Alaska? For the most part, I’ll stick to the mountain climbing, skiing, running and other non-walking-types of activities. Until and unless I’m no longer allergic to dogs, I just don’t see walking fitting into my day-to-day plans outside of errands. Apparently, those steps added up just fine.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.