Walking through this pandemic

Howard Chang
By Howard Chang
Dec. 23, 2020

This year my movements have been restricted more than any other time in my life. Physical distancing mandates have made it challenging to exercise.

Courtesy of Howard Chang
Howard Chang in his white coat stands outside the Johns Hopkins Hospital
on Sept. 10, 2019.

When the gyms shut down, I quickly adopted a resistance band workout routine at home that has been a sufficient substitute for strength training with weights. But I worried about finding a form of cardiovascular exercise that was both sustainable and enjoyable. Years ago, I tried high-intensity interval training, but I could only keep it up for a few months. I usually play basketball.

I noticed that the pandemic seemed to spare outdoor runners and walkers. I have never enjoyed outdoor running, so I decided to try regular walking. I was hesitant at first. I prefer working up a sweat to burn calories more efficiently, so I thought walking was a waste of time. Nothing was further from the truth. Since I started walking regularly in the summer, I have found that this simple form of exercise offers unique benefits.

1. It's easy to do, and to stick with.

I can walk virtually anywhere: outdoors, indoors and even in my home. It is affordable, requiring no memberships or special equipment other than a comfortable pair of shoes. And it takes little physical and mental discipline to get up and take a walk — for my science friends, the activation energy required to get out and walk is one of the lowest among exercises.

Arguably, the most important component of exercise is consistency. A strenuous regimen that quickly burns calories does little good in the long term if it is too challenging to maintain. Consistency is easier to achieve with exercises such as walking that do not overtax the central nervous system or impair muscle recovery.

Walking is also safer than running, an important consideration for those who have preexisting injuries or who must take precautions when exercising. Few things are more demoralizing to athletes and exercisers than injuries that stop them from doing what they enjoy. Preventing injuries is crucial to long-term exercise success.

2. It's effective for fat loss, cardiovascular health and appetite control.

I'll be frank: I used to look down on walking as a form of exercise because I didn't think it was effective enough. From my days as a high school athlete, I bought fully into the mantra "No pain, no gain." Walking may not build stamina and endurance as well as strenuous cardio, but don't underestimate its benefits for fat loss and cardiovascular health. Again, sustained consistent walking is a powerful way to achieve favorable long-term health outcomes.

Courtesy of Howard Chang
Howard Chang writes that walking has led him to beautiful sights he never
would have experienced if he only exercised at the gym.

An immediate benefit I noticed was that regular walking did not ramp up my appetite. Strenuous cardio tended to deplete my energy, so I would compensate by overeating. I was also prone to rewarding myself with unhealthy foods after intense exercise. Walking is quality exercise that doesn't stoke the flames of hunger — the Achilles' heel of most arduous exercise plans.

3. Its possibilities are limitless.

Within reason, walking knows no bounds — mentally and geographically.

Mindful walking, particularly when implemented within the immersion in the natural world known as forest bathing, is a meditative practice that brings physical, mental and emotional health benefits.

This summer, I walked around my neighborhood several times each week while listening to podcasts or talks. I began to see these walks as incredibly efficient uses of my time — I was simultaneously learning and benefiting from my listening material, resting and relaxing due to the sights and sounds around me and, obviously, exercising.

Walking has led me to some beautiful sights that I never would have experienced if I only exercised in the confines of my local gym. I spent a day walking through the incredible Huntington Botanical Gardens in California near my hometown, and I recently hiked in Patapsco Valley State Park in Maryland for the first time.

I also never realized until my long summer walks how beautiful my Baltimore neighborhood truly is.

Walking has helped me see what I've been missing both around me and within me. Since I started walking, I have developed a healthier relationship with exercise. I am now less attached to immediate results and more interested in enjoying the experience. With walking, the results come in time — through consistency — and I am already beginning to gather the fruits.

This essay was adapted from an entry on Biomedical Odyssey, a blog about life at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Read the original here.

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Howard Chang
Howard Chang

Howard Chang is a second-year medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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