For the first two months of the new coronavirus quarantine, I’d go for a walk about once a week. I’d take out the trash and do a swift anxiety-riddled loop around the block. I soon realized, though, that New York City’s rapidly growing death toll coupled with the crowded streets made me feel safest inside. In lieu of more frequent walks, I bought a cheap rower to get some additional exercise. People around me, however, were worried. Though I talked this through with my therapist (who, for the record, was fine with it), my lack of outside time caused some of my loved ones great distress. “Have you been out for a walk?” they’d ask softly. “Maybe you should get outside.” In response, I’d remind them that I was only committing to one walk per week.
Now that there are reports that new cases and death tolls where I live are slowly declining and almost everyone I see in my neighborhood wears a mask, I’ve graduated to walking several times a week. But still, on bad days, when someone notices a dip in my voice, or I say I’m a little down, the offer to “try going for a walk” is lobbed in my direction. To all the wonderful people out there who offer walks to folks who don’t take their advice—or folks who are already talking regular walks—it might be time to stop.
Let me first say that I know your heart is in the right place.
I want to make one thing clear: I genuinely believe that people who suggest that I go outside when I seem sad have my best interest at heart. I know it’s a loving gesture, a shorthand for “I’m concerned about you.” Moreover, trying moderate physical exercise as a potential mood-booster is solid advice. In general, exercise can help relieve stress and possibly keep anxious thoughts under control, according to the Mayo Clinic. But what was once a relaxing stroll (or a miles-long rage walk) now involves a face mask, social distancing, and the threat of a deadly respiratory infection. Simply put: Leisurely walks don’t hit the same.
I completely understand the urge to try to find solutions to a loved one’s problems. (I’ve fallen into that trap more times than I can count.) But we run the risk of overlooking and underestimating emotional and psychological nuances when we aim to immediately fix someone else instead of getting curious about what’s really going on. Think of the countless times people with depression have been told to try yoga. Provided my friends and family members are being safe (and adhering to social distancing), I try to work under the premise that everyone is doing their best with the information they have. On that note: Going for a walk is pretty common advice. Of course I know that going for a walk can be a mood-booster sometimes. If I haven’t gone for a walk, that’s a deliberate choice I’ve made. Trust me, I’ve thought about it and ruled it out.
Here’s what you might try doing instead.
I don’t dare speak for everyone who’s been told to go for a walk, but most often, asking what’s bothering me and listening to my response is more useful than telling me how to boost my mood. The sad truth (as I see it) is that walks are lovely, especially in the middle of spring, but a walk won’t always alleviate the stress I’m processing. A flower might make me smile underneath my face mask, the sun might even bring me some peace, but these moments aren’t fixes for some of the emotions that are coming up right now.