Recently, I embarked on a series of conversations with people about their reasons for taking walks. I heard about a wide range of motivations. But surely one of the most compelling was walking as a way of coping with pain.
Walking Out of the Shadows
Grief is a journey that for some is best traveled on foot. Movies such as Wild and The Way have depicted long, arduous treks prompted by personal loss and emotional pain. Yet walking doesn’t have to be so physically grueling or outwardly dramatic to feel therapeutic.
If you search the scientific literature on walking and coping with grief, you’ll discover — not much. Few studies have looked specifically at this connection. Nevertheless, there’s good evidence that physical activity helps reduce stress and ease full-fledged depression. Certainly, these are very relevant benefits for anyone mourning a tragic loss. Grief is a highly stressful experience, and the risk of becoming clinically depressed increases among the bereaved.
Walking outdoors in natural surroundings, as opposed to on a treadmill or urban street, may be a source of added solace. Research in non-grieving individuals has shown that spending time in nature helps boost mood and restore mental focus.
Many researchers have said that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area reported a decrease in rumination (repetitive brooding over negative feelings), which is a risk factor for depression. On brain scans, they also showed reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that’s active during rumination. Participants who walked in a high-traffic urban area didn’t experience the same benefits.
Some people prefer to walk alone. But others appreciate the feeling of social connection that comes from striding shoulder-to-shoulder with another human being. Here and there, you’ll find grief support groups and hospice programs that offer organized walking clubs. More often, you’ll find informal groups of friends, neighbors and coworkers who started out simply as walking buddies and ended up as companions on the odyssey through grief.
Walking with others helps ease feelings of loneliness and counters the tendency to withdraw socially — a common response to loss that may contribute to complicated grief or full-on depression in certain individuals. Knowing that a friend is waiting on the walking path may be the motivation that some people need to lace up their sneakers and face the world again.
Moving Forward, Step by Step
Going for walks, even short ones, is an act of self-nurturing. In the depths of grief, it can be difficult to muster the energy to take care of yourself. Getting some exercise is a step in the right direction, but for those that suffer with pain some cautions need to be reasonable about what you expect of yourself.