I forced myself to walk for an hour every day during the pandemic, and I was surprised by how much it improved my mental and physical health

© Lydia Warren/Insider   I've been walking every day for a month, and it's helped me get my health back on track. Lydia Warren/Insider

By Lydia Warren, INSIDER

Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered New York in March, I had a pretty good exercise routine going: I walked briskly in New York City every day and attended spin classes at the gym three or four times a week.

But after my gym closed and I started working from home, my activity level slumped. While everyone on my Instagram feed was taking exercise classes in their living room, I just wasn't interested. I started to feel lethargic and it was getting harder to fall asleep.

A month ago, to take control of my health, I decided to challenge myself by setting a daily, achievable goal: to walk an hour every day.

I expected it would make me feel better, but actually, I'm surprised just how effective it's been.
Walking seemed an easy first step to get my health back on track, especially because of its reported benefits

The US Department of Health and Human Services recommends adults complete at least 150 minutes of "moderate-intensity aerobic activity" a week. Doing so can lead to health benefits including reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, and dementia.

When it comes to walking, "moderate intensity" is a minimum of 2.5 miles per hour, but it depends on sex, age, and fitness level. My natural walking pace is just under 4 miles an hour, putting me within the bracket to experience its benefits. At an hour a day, I'd also be completing around 420 minutes of walking a week, more than double the recommended amount.

© Lydia Warren/Insider   Spending time in nature. Lydia Warren/Insider


Initially, an hour felt like a surprisingly long time

I'm fortunate to live in the suburbs with lots of sidewalks and parks, so I wasn't short of places to walk, and I could safely socially distance while doing so. But I was surprised just how many different turns I had to take in order to walk for an entire hour.

Still, I kept it up. After weeks of walking, I got pretty good at guessing a distance I could complete in the time, rather than watching the clock.

The faster you walk, the more benefits you'll see, but I maintained a consistent, brisk pace without overly exerting myself or getting too out of breath. I knew I couldn't punish myself on these walks if I wanted to keep them up.


I also learned not to stick to a scheduled time for my daily walk

At first, I anticipated walking before work. I'm an early riser so a 6 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. start felt feasible. I loved how quiet the streets were, and I liked the feeling that I'd already achieved my goal when I sat down to start work for the day. Some days, I even took a flask of coffee with me.

© Lydia Warren/Insider   Walking through my empty neighborhood. Lydia Warren/Insider

But a week later, I woke up and the thought of taking a walk made me groan. That was exactly what I didn't want: to be put off when I'd barely begun. So I loosened up my strict schedule and started walking after work instead. At weekends, I'd simply take a walk whenever I felt like it. If the weather was particularly bad, I could work around that, too.

This relaxed attitude to scheduling meant I didn't feel guilty for not waking up early enough or stressed about when I was going to fit it in during my day. It remained something enjoyable that I didn't dread or resent.


I quickly realized walking is a completely hassle-free way to exercise

One of my Insider colleagues, Talia Lakritz, recently shared her experience of dressing up for remote work every day, and one thing she lamented was needing to change into her athletic clothes for yoga during her lunch hour, but I didn't have that problem.

You need no special equipment, facilities, or clothing to walk — you can just go. Every day, I simply got up from my desk, put on any shoes (even flip-flops), and opened my front door. There was simply no excuse not to do it.

© Lydia Warren/Insider   There was no need to change out of my workday clothes when going for a walk. Lydia Warren/Insider


After a couple of weeks of daily walks, I started to feel so much better physically

One of the most significant ways I rate my physical health is by changes in my resting heart rate. My resting heart rate is susceptible to lifestyle choices, such as not getting enough exercise or eating poorly. For me, a simple way to stop it from increasing is by maintaining regular exercise, even if it's gentle, and eating well, which I largely do as a vegan.

After I had completed about two weeks of daily walks, I suddenly realized something: I felt so much better, physically. There had been no sudden increases to my resting heart rate, and my physical health felt strong and consistent. For me, this feeling was incredibly significant. It was both something I could have assumed yet really didn't expect to feel so accutely.

© Lydia Warren/Insider   I've forced myself to walk in different places, while respecting social distancing rules. Lydia Warren/Insider

My anecdotal experience seems to fit into a bigger picture painted by studies. A study review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, for example, found that people who were part of a walking group showed significant reductions in their resting heart rate, as well as other physical improvements, such as reduced cholesterol and blood pressure. According to a review of studies shared by Healthline, walking five days a week can also help lower your risk of heart disease.


Even though walking can lead to weight loss, it hasn't for me

I weighed myself before I started my daily walks and again after a month, just in case there was a change, but there wasn't. That said, weight loss was never my goal: feeling healthy and committing to staying active was.

Like everyone else, I have upped my snack intake since working from home, so while I haven't lost weight from walking, it has perhaps allowed me to maintain my weight while eating whatever is in my cupboards.

Walking can help weight loss, however. Walking a mile burns approximately 100 calories, depending on your sex and weight, according to Healthline, and studies have indicated that walking for an hour multiple times a week reduces belly fat.


Mentally, I've noticed benefits, too

Walking has also been found to have significant impacts on mental health. A study by Harvard University and other institutions showed that three hours of exercise a week could decrease the risks of depression. This risk decreased a further 17% with each added 30 minutes or so of daily activity.

While I do not have depression, I can experience anxiety, which also affects my sleep. For me, separating my home life from my non-home life is essential, but that has been hard in lockdown.

Before the pandemic, I was commuting from New York City to my home in Long Island every day, and I enjoyed the 40-minute train journey that allowed me to disconnect from city stresses. Reading during this daily commute helped me feel much more relaxed and improved my sleep.

This obviously stopped when I was forced to stay at home. However, after about three weeks of walking, I realized that taking a walk immediately after my workday instituted the separation I had once experienced on my commute. When I returned to home, I felt clear-headed and refreshed for the evening.

My reading hasn't suffered, either. Rather than reading a book, I've listened to them on headphones thanks to free audiobooks from my library.

© Lydia Warren/Insider   I've finished many audiobooks on my walks. Lydia Warren/Insider


I've also spent more time in nature

Some evenings and weekends, I've driven somewhere new for my walks. I've taken (socially distant) strolls on my local beach's boardwalk, around a lake at a nearby state park, and through the woods. These walks have gotten me away from the environs of my home during the lockdown — a welcome change.

Seeking out the smells and sights of nature might not have happened quite so regularly without these daily walks, and in a relatively short time, I believe I've reaped the benefits of being in nature, such as reduced anxiety.

© Lydia Warren/Insider   I've loved spending more time in nature. Lydia Warren/Insider

A wealth of studies has shown contact with nature is linked to psychological well-being and has positive impact on memory, attention, imagination, and a feeling of purpose, among other things. One 2019 study found that people who spend at least two hours in nature each week "are significantly more likely to report good health and higher psychological well-being" than those who do not.

One thing that organizations such as the American Heart Association indicate is that walking will lead to a "better quality of life and sense of overall well-being," which sums up my feelings perfectly.


While I predicted I'd feel better after walking every day, the positive effects have been more significant than I expected

While I'm looking forward to the intensity of spin class once the gym opens again, I plan on keeping up my daily walks for as long as I'm working from home, and perhaps even after the lockdown is completely lifted. While I will likely shorten my walks over time, I'm going to aim to complete at least the 30 minutes a day recommended by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Why not? It's easy, free, and is helping me in more ways than I expected.

© Lydia Warren/Insider   A beach stroll. Lydia Warren/Insider

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