During the pandemic, I became a walker. I’d been an avid runner for years, but in the spring of 2020, the thought of strapping on an N95 mask and venturing out into New York City for a jog felt so intimidating I may as well have been gearing up to run through the gauntlet of hell. It was simply, definitely not going to happen. In those uncertain days, I craved something much more approachable, calming, and less cardio intensive. So I started taking myself for little walks.
I was not alone in my sudden affinity for strolls. At the height of the pandemic the popularity of the humble walk surged — a study of pandemic walking habits in 10 U.S. cities conducted by researchers at MIT found that, after an initial dip, our time spent on recreational walks in the spring 2020 surpassed pre-pandemic levels. I personally started tracing the same 2.5-mile loop near my apartment twice a day, a consistent routine I knew I could count on. Sometimes it felt like a fitness activity, but more often my walks felt like a moving meditation — a place to center myself in the morning (rather than rolling straight out of bed and over to my makeshift desk), and a place to decompress in the evening in place of the commute that used to create some physical space between work stress and home life.
That so many people turned to daily walks for many of the same reasons I did in 2020 is not surprising. For white collar workers with the privilege to work from home, walking became a natural escape from the claustrophobia of being confined indoors all day, a life raft in the form of gentle cardio. But what is surprising is that the popularity of recreational walking doesn’t seem to be going anywhere well into 2022. Even as life returns back to a new kind of normal, walking’s popularity is only growing. It’s not just enduring — walking has gotten undeniably cool.
The #HotGirlWalk started trending on TikTok in early 2021 as an empowering means of reaffirming your “hotness” simply by moving your body, no equipment required. As of June 2022, the #HotGirlWalk had become a multi-faceted movement with over 224 million views. One incarnation of hot girl walking involves an actual treadmill workout that looks about as sweaty and sadistic as the boot camps I used to regularly attend in pre-COVID times but the origins of the movement are simpler, asking only that you move your body and focus on gratitude, confidence, and your goals.
@shaylaf_ just in case you see me irl and wonder what i’m thinking about lol #hotgirlwalk #moodbooster #dailymotivationdose #thatgirlaesthetic #slowlivinglifestyle ♬ woman sped up – xxtristanxo
The hot girl walk isn’t exactly a new invention — the TikTok girlies have merely given a catchy name to the years of research on the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of walking. When done right — regularly, at moderate-intensity, and with an intentional focus on being present — walking is kind of a miracle workout, according to the research.
Here’s why you should make walking an enduring part of your wellness routine.
What walking does for your brain
For me, the walking routine began as it has for people across time and cultures: as a mental escape. The simple act of putting one foot in front of another has been an integral part of spiritual practices for centuries; various versions of walking meditation practices can be found in Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. The meditative powers of walking are most explicitly found in Zen Buddhism with the practice of kinhin, a slow, mindful walk practiced in tandem with sitting meditation.
Kinhin may not be on your radar (Or perhaps not consciously — ever paced around the room while trying to figure out a tough problem?) but its cousin forest bathing probably is. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku — walking in nature as a means for practicing mindfulness — was exploding in popularity way before the pandemic for its well-documented stress-reducing effects.
The mental health benefits of regular moderate-intensity walking are so well-studied and compelling that some practitioners recommend daily walks as a form of therapy.
The mental boost you get from a nice stroll is not just hype or a fresh-air-induced placebo. (And you technically don’t need to be walking in nature to see the benefits, though it definitely helps.) The mental health benefits of regular moderate-intensity walking are so well-studied and compelling that some practitioners recommend daily walks as a form of therapy. In a meta-analysis of 26 studies on the mental health impact of long-distance walks published in 2021, researchers found the practice does indeed have a mentally therapeutic effect — particularly in moments of distress. Exactly why walking is such a well-suited tool for these moments of stress and anxiety isn’t entirely clear but researchers identified three key “active components” of walking that help explain the mental boost: time, space to focus on yourself, and the opportunity to “find or show personal strength.”
Another reason for the mental boost may be the way that walking physically shapes your brain. A 2021 study published in the journal Neuroimage measured brain volume and performance in three groups of exercisers: a control group, which attended three one-hour stretching classes each week and two aerobic exercise groups — dancing and walking — whose sessions were designed to boost cardiorespiratory fitness. They found that both cardio conditions increased brain volume (a good thing) but that only the group who did 20-40 minutes of brisk walking three times showed increased memory performance, suggesting walking may have a leg up on other forms of exercise.
What walking does for your body
The physical benefits to a regular walking practice are many: improved blood pressure, cholesterol and cardiovascular health, higher energy, and brain function. Walking can even improve your sleep. But the Neuroimage study hinted at a very important question. Of course walking, like any regular moderate-intensity exercise, is good for you — but is it better than other forms of cardio? The short answer is that it depends how you define “better.” A key 2013 study found regular walking was similarly effective to regular running at reducing your risk for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. The key is how briskly you’re walking — to get the cardio benefits of a walk, you should be moving intensely enough that you couldn’t sing, but not stressing yourself so much that it’s hard to hold a conversation.
If it’s calorie-burning you’re concerned with, a walk can be just as effective as a higher-intensity run — just not quite as efficient. Running burns nearly double the calories of a leisurely walk, meaning you’d have to walk twice as long; you can also close the gap by power walking. In the pro column, walking is however much easier on your joints.
Why walking should be a part of your wellness routine
Aside from the research-backed benefits, one of my favorite things about walking is how approachable it is. I don’t need to book a class, give myself a motivating pep talk, or even change my shoes. Walking is available all the time any time. It’s a source of guaranteed movement in my day — one that I can access at any moment to feel healthy or calm … or like I’m cool enough to be on TikTok.