Like everyone, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down last March. My husband, Brent, started working remotely from the home office and the kids tackled online school. Quite suddenly, the house felt crowded and noisy. As a freelance writer and editor who, for two decades, has worked quietly, alone, from home all day, this new arrangement felt like an infringement on my space.
But my new favourite pandemic activity—simply taking a walk—has become my go-to “reset” when the stress is rising. Not only have regular daily walks made all the together time manageable, but I would go so far as to say I even feel closer to my partner, and I have grown as a parent, too.
Now that the kids, who are 12 and 14 years old, are back at in-person school, my husband and I can do these walks together every weekday morning. Brent and I head out to explore our Toronto neighbourhood as a kind of “walk to work” that replaces his previous commute to the office. There’s an alley loop behind our house—it’s 1.5 kilometres and makes for the perfect quick stroll. We hardly ever see anybody else in the alleys, which is better than braving the usually-busy sidewalks full of people and puppies, and we can go mask-free.
We check up on the ongoing renovations in the neighbourhood, go over some of the practicalities of the day, talk through challenges we’re having with the kids (too much screen time!), and make plans for the weekend. And we daydream about post-COVID times, too. The fresh air and the physical activity get our hearts and brains going and make us feel ready to face the day.
These walks also give us much-needed time away from the kids—not just to work through family things out of earshot, but also to just be Brent and Kelly—and not parents—for a while. And, if we’re struggling with something as a couple, walking together, facing forward (rather than facing each other somewhat confrontationally on the couch) serves as a much easier way to tackle the tough relationship conversations.
On weekends, we usually strike out farther afield. We’re lucky that Toronto’s High Park is just a kilometre away, but we can also hop in the car and drive to a residential neighbourhood we’ve never been to before, just for fun. After parking, we explore and get a little lost and look at houses. Sometimes we get lucky and find curbside treasures. In recent months, we’ve lugged home piano innards and graffitied corrugated metal to repurpose as wall art.
Sometimes, we do bring the kids with us. It’s become a fresh-air cure for whatever’s ailing them. If one of our kids is feeling anxious or frustrated about something, we encourage them to join. They always deny that the walk will help, and sometimes it takes the lure of a piece of bribery bubble gum to convince them to finally get their shoes on. But despite their protests, when we return home, the walk always seems to lighten the intensity of the feelings.
On these walks, we try to take cues from the kids. If they want to just walk and not talk about the heavy stuff, that’s OK. The outside time and exercise can help on their own. If they want to share, we try to just listen. Admittedly, it’s hard to focus on listening and not fixing, but I find that sometimes trying to “do something” about the stress leads to more stress and less sharing, so it’s worth the effort to just try and be the quiet ally.
Sometimes I head out for a brisk stroll on my own, especially when I’m feeling overwhelmed by work, by too many responsibilities or by the everywhere-I-look piles of clutter, now that we’re stuck in our houses so much. I don’t take my phone or a bag with me and I stick to the greenest, quietest stretches in my neighbourhood.
A great friend once encouraged me to try meditation when I was feeling anxious, and although I never managed to master sitting meditation, I’m realizing that this has become a kind of walking meditation that has done amazing things for my mental health. I focus on my breathing, in time with my steps, with my eyes on a focal point in the distance. It lifts the brain fog that I sometimes experience when I have too many balls in the air and Just. Can’t. Deal.
Walking definitely can’t solve all my problems, return us to the “normal” life we miss so much, or provide immunity against COVID-19, but I can’t think of a single downside. Next time you’re feeling a little lost and disheartened, I highly recommend simply stepping outside and putting one foot in front of the other.