Step by Step

By Kathryn Hopper

I used to walk to burn calories, exercise my dogs or save on gas. Now I do it for my sanity. In the months of COVID-19 quarantining, my daily excursions have become an escape. And not just from my house — filled to the brink with kids, dogs and dirty dishes — but from the new reality.

I lace up my sneakers and, more often than not, leash up my miniature dachshund and head out of the driveway. As we begin our morning ritual, I feel a bit like my 10-year-old self about to set out on a grand adventure with my trusted canine companion. Back then, we would set out on an afternoon expedition of the rabbit trails in the woods behind our family home.

Now, mindful of social distancing and the challenge of training a dog who sees fellow canines as an enemy until proven otherwise, I have a new routine. We try to get our walk in just after dawn, when there are fewer dogs to draw his barking bravado.

This has many advantages. It’s not only cooler, but we get glimpses of the natural world, like the time we spotted a newly shed snakeskin. My earbuds are left home, so I enjoy the coo of a mourning dove and the pulse of lawn sprinklers.

As we reach the first street corner, I can feel my spirits lifting. We pick up our pace, and pretty soon I start to daydream, not about the day’s headlines or stresses but about what my neighborhood once looked like a century ago, when it was just a few farms and ranches in Cross Timbers and Blackland prairies.

Back then, walking was a major mode of transportation. The 25.8-mile trip to Fort Worth would have taken a day at least by foot, compared to the 30 or so minutes it takes by car on the Airport Freeway.

These days, the threat of the coronavirus has me not only hunkering down but slowing down as well. I’m not commuting to work, so I have time for these morning walks and have discovered my body feels more in tune moving at 3 miles per hour than at 70.

In his 2019 book, In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration, neuroscientist Shane O’Mara points to the many ways that regular walking can actually change your brain, stimulate creativity and improve your mood.

“Walking enhances every aspect of our social, psychological and neural functioning,” writes O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin. “It is the simple, life-enhancing, health-building prescription we all need, one that we should take in regular doses, large and small, at a good pace, day in, day out, in nature and in our towns and cities.”

I knew that walking has physical benefits, but I didn’t realize the power of its mental benefits, which can be felt immediately. A Stanford University study found that walking increased creative output by 60 percent, boosting what researchers called “divergent thinking,” defined as generating ideas that explore a wide range of creative solutions.

And walking has been shown to improve memory and prevent the deterioration of brain tissue as we get older. Even just a 10-minute stroll can help relieve anxiety and boost your mood.

So I will continue to rise each morning and walk. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for the day and what crosses my path.

Kathryn Hopper is the author of Best Hikes Dallas/Fort Worth: The Greatest Views, Wildlife, and Forest Strolls.