Scientists tell us even three 20-minute walks a week help us live happier, healthier and longer. As a committed walker since I did the 30-mile Hike For Hunger in high school I love what this exercise does for the body. Yet what I crave most of all is what it does for my head.
Feeling lousy? Take a walk. I'm not a doctor or a shrink -- yet I promise that you will return from your trek a new person, spunkier and more hopeful. When we made the choice to move near the Chesapeake Bay and raise our children here I was impressed with the schools and the intimacy of our community. The deal breaker for me though was the Baltimore-Annapolis trail, the windy, woodsy spine of splendor that never fails to leave me both sweaty and soothed. For most of these years my trusty walking partner has been my neighbor Jan Flaherty.
We have walked and talked through the many seasons of our lives, joyful and sad. We walked through the illnesses and deaths of our mothers; the agony of 9-11 that hit Jan brutally, as a United flight attendant for 30 years who knew colleagues on the downed jetliners.
We walked through her choice to leave the airlines and become a real estate agent, who now works at Coldwell Banker. We walked through the transition of our children from pre-school to worrying about high school parties to choices of colleges. We walked through the wars that shake the world to post-hurricane havoc in our hometown of Maryland.
We keep on keeping on, through the sauna of summers, the burst of spring wildflowers, the runners that pass us by in Halloween costumes, the icy trails of winter -- when surrounding neighborhoods can hear our loud harmony in "Deck The Halls".
Whatever saddled us when we start out is lifted, lightened, abandoned throughout three-mile conversations that often end with silly games we played as kids like "A my name is Adam and I live in Alabama and my mother makes applesauce, B my name is Bertha..." And while we do discuss weighty subjects dominating the news we dwell as much on delightful fluff -- my miracle Miracle Whip salmon recipe; her new hairdresser; my great raincoat find at TJ Maxx, the $10 palm trees she bought on sale at Lowes.
Giddy and exhausted, having whittled off calories, our early evening walks can end up in one of our kitchens, with Cabernet and a fattening selection of cheeses. We know that the next day we can burn off the calories again -- and so the circle goes.
Over the years we have made lots of "friends" on the trail, people we see several times a week, walking and talking and laughing like us. We know some of their first names, none of their last names, yet we greet each other like we are relatives, so familiar are their faces and their gaits. There is Jimmy who rides his bicycle 30 or so miles from the Baltimore Airport, his calves bulging with muscles and veins. There's Bob who walks in a business attire, and the old couple who hold hands and speak Italian or Polish, we can't figure out which one.
There are clusters of high school track teams and a few slower moving teens that smoke. There are lots of powerful moms pushing power strollers, throwing us back into our younger selves when we too were strolling with sleeping babies, thrilled to be out of the house.
Reflecting on her childhood growing up near Niagara Falls it makes sense to Jan that walking has become a source of energy and survival in her adult life:
"When we faced adversity or uncertainty as children my ever-stoic mom would say 'Just put one foot in front of the other and keep going'," Jan recalls. "As it turns out, those words have become a predominant script of adulthood. Walking has become an apt metaphor for moving forward as we navigate through confusing and complicated issues ranging from child rearing to career choices to the death of loved ones. The topics that we tackle on our walks are the real deal, the meat of life."
During our journey inward there is plenty of outward stimulation as well, as we walk past fox and deer, pastures of goats and horses, spring's roses and honeysuckle, ice-crusted pines. This foggy morning we walked through a sputtering of rain, a morning when I am excited that our four grown sons are coming home for the holidays. Thankfully, I know when the empty nest becomes lonely I can call Jan and say "Wanna walk?", and I will get filled up again on adrenaline and our banter.
Iris Krasnow is a bestselling author of books on women's issues that can be found on iriskrasnow.com.. Her latest book is Sex After...Women Share How Intimacy Changes As Life Changes.