One Small Step For Anxiety: Living Proof Walking Can Impact Your Mental Health

A woman lacing up her shoes

This walking challenge article is a part of our Good Sport series. We’re up for any challenge (physical or mental) and this is where we prove it – and then convince you to do the same! Daily burpees anyone?

Sometimes you just want to get out. Leave it all behind. Clear your head. But how many of us actually do it?

For Catherine Harris, a museum manager, she found the pandemic, the lockdowns, the lack of routine, were becoming all too much. So she left her house and family and went for walks on her own. Her daily walks got longer and longer, like an urban version of the movie Wild (she wasn’t passing rivers, she was passing Starbucks). Friends got concerned. But her 15-year-old saw something different in her: “Mom, I like what is this is doing for your mental health.”

Harris chats with us about her walks, what it did for her anxiety and how it not only changed how she saw herself but her city, her family and her life, too. 

What motivated you to start walking? Why now?

“I’m not an athlete at all always struggled to get past that New Year’s resolution model of exercise. A few months in and then I would bail. In March 2020, when the shutdown happened, I went on long walks early in the morning to find freedom of being out without being around people. Because of the pandemic, I was having a bit of anxiety, around the unknown and that loss of sense of personal control. Walking lit a fuse for me in terms of my mental health. There are obvious mental health benefits from physical movement, but I found that just doing something you set out to do gives you a sense of achievement, as well as just getting around limitations that life throws at you. Once I started doing it, I was surprised by how motivated I was to continue. And then started to feel apprehension around what would happen if I couldn’t do it. I was hooked. With a lot of support from family, I was out of the house for two to four hours every day. Everyone thought it was crazy, and it seemed too extreme, but I don’t know what I would have done without it.”

How have your walks changed your routine?

“Before bed, I used to meditate, count sheep, et cetera. Now I’m mapping tomorrow’s route. I’m in a management position for a museum, and I need my brain to work. Walking connected my sense of achievement. I was able to reinvent my business through COVID-19 with quick thinking, critical thinking, sharp decision making. When you’re wearing soft pants at home all day, it’s hard to keep your brain sharp. I realized how much I gained from getting dressed, leaving having to navigate a commute, all these things keep your brain healthy. When your desk is a metre from your bed, you lose that sharpness.”

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How long are your walks? How do you progress your walking distances?

“It grew intuitively. Five kilometres is the minimum, but I average 10 kilometres a day. A longer walk might be 15 to half marathon. I do it every single day. I get up early three times a week at 5:45 a.m. I walk before work on the other two weekdays. I walk when I can on weekends, sometimes before the house wakes up. Then, I’m not in such a rush.

“I started setting monthly goals. First, it was for 2,000 cumulative kilometres by Mother’s Day. But for me, it’s not primarily about that. It’s about getting out of the house for one to four hours.

“With the help of a life coach in Toronto, I found if you set a goal, the chances of you achieving it so much higher than if you wing it. The walking took on new dimension for me, I made it the subject of my goal setting. That made me reach for tangible targets to find that I could achieve and exceed them was so exciting. I started doing that goal-setting more in work and in parenting.”

Find out the results of a two-week Pilate challenge.

You mention routine, but what else did walking do for you?

“There’s no question that I’m stronger. My body has changed. I lost 18 pounds. I also get to see my beautiful city. It’s an incredible, beautiful place to explore. I’ve discovered amazing little things about the neighborhoods, like hidden libraries, secret passages.”

What’s the best way to start a walking routine?

“Just do it. Just try one step at a time, and turn left when you would have normally turned right in your own neighborhood. Just go once and see. I recommend having an accountability buddy, too. I have a friend who is a long-distance runner. I put it into perspective: If she can run 40 kilometres, I can walk five. I used that as an incentive. She’ll send me a note once in a while that’s really friendly encouraging. That has been a huge thing. Those 545 walks would be impossible if I didn’t have a date with someone else, too. You have a commitment then you get the social connection, too. Also, because I’ve put my walks on Instagram with @walkswithcat and put it public, people send me messages to say I’ve inspired them to try, too.”

Walking actually changes the brain. Read this to find out how.

What would you tell someone who wants to try to get fit?

“I’d say that you don’t have to be a certain type to achieve these kinds of things. I love that I’ve become an ‘accidental’ athlete. My body has shown me that it’s stronger than I thought it could be. My determination helps me get through lots of hard stuff and were facing a lot of that these days. Do something for yourself before you start the rest of your day, whether it’s for your body, with food, journaling, yoga, meditation.”