Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 22, 2021

Awe walking

Often when I mention exercise, someone says, "You donít need to do that. You're skinny enough!"

While I'm not as slender as I once was, that's not my motivation. Like many women, I struggle some with decreasing bone density, a condition aggravated by months of treatments with strong steroids during my 1997 illness. But my motivation is only partially physical. I find that when I get out of the house and into nature, the experience buoys my spirit.

Iíve never exercised faithfully. Iíll make a resolution, stick with it a while, stop a few days, resume a few more days, and then totally fizzle out. Husband Art says it is because I am a ďlistyĒ person. Iíve always made lists of what I want to accomplish each day. Things that don't get on the list are what I think of as "if I have time" items. But even on days I finish the list, my mind says, "Done!" and I rarely think about those other things. Exercising has always been one of those.

But my retirement list is shorter, so for some time Iíve been doing my nightly "floor exercises." They're not strenuous, but help keep me flexible and strengthen my lower back and legs. Art can attest to the fact that I pretty reliably do those. Well, maybe he can't, since I tend to do them when he's visiting slumber-land on the couch.

My latest plan was to add walking to my daily routine. When I was working, I tried to schedule walks several times a week. Friend Wanda helped keep me on track. Adding "WWW" - Walk with Wanda - to my "At-a-Glance" calendar did the trick - until the weather turned nasty.

But except for a couple of bad-weather days, over the past three weeks, I've walked every afternoon. I would text Art "leaving on my daily constitutional." His late mother Donna used that term for her daily walk. Art's brother Tommy, 88, has literally followed in their mother's footsteps and walks several miles each day.

Many studies have touted walking for its ability to help people be more productive, feel better physically and be more mentally sharp. And it's hardly news. A March 2020 Health and Fitness article, "Why You Should Be Taking a Daily Constitutional," quoted an 1859 essay in the New England Farmer: "If Americans would prescribe to themselves what John Bull calls his 'constitutional walk,' we should gain in strength of muscle, and banish or diminish the common complaint, dyspepsia."

"John Bull" to a Brit is what "Uncle Sam" is to an American. Dyspepsia refers to indigestion, and one's "constitution" is his or her physical disposition.

Art recently mentioned a BBC radio segment about "awe walks" - a way a person can get even more benefit from a short jaunt. This led me to a November 2020 Psychology Today article by Bryan E. Robinson:

... An "awe walk" is a stroll in which you intentionally shift your attention outward instead of inward. So, you're not thinking about the tight deadline, the unfinished project, the strain in your relationship with your spouse, or concerns about the coronavirus.

Retirement mostly eliminated worries about deadlines and unfinished projects. We do occasionally irritate each other, but I certainly don't feel a strain in my relationship with Art. However, Covid-19 and the recent political chaos have weighed on me a bit. While any walk can help general well-being, the "attention shift" mentioned is key to greater benefits. Robinson explained:

Since the early 2000s, a movement has been afoot among psychologists to study and better understand the science of awe - an overwhelming, self-transcendent sense of wonder and reverence in which you feel a part of something that is vast, larger than you, and that transcends your understanding of the world. The cause can be nature, music, art, a political march, a spiritual figure, or a ceremony. Some people refer to ... an altered state that unearths joy, well-being and inner calm. ...

... The state of awe is a paradox. Your feelings of being diminished connect you to something larger. There's a tremendous openness and freedom that comes when you consider yourself a speck of dust in the midst of the universe or a grain of sand on an expansive beach. ... You're engaged with the expansiveness of the external world, less focused on yourself and more on others, which takes your mind off your burdens, trials and tribulations, your worries, anxieties and frustrations.

My go-to place is a small park encircled by a "tree walk" about half-a-mile in length. I work at forgetting about what I was doing earlier in the day and focus on the somewhat "squishy" path created by a sandy base with a bit of gravel on it. When it gets too spongy, I move to the grass along the edge. It too is soft, especially where itís covered by pine needles.

I'm surrounded by sugar maples, Osage oranges, green spire lindens, honey locusts, river birches and oaks mixed in with "Cotton Candy" redbuds, "Sugar Tyme" crabapples and other more exotic-sounding species. I know these things because of plaques that identify the different species and include other information. For example, Native Americans used the boiled sap of river birches as sweetener similar to maple syrup and the inner bark as a survival food. Many of the trees were planted to honor people who lived or still live in the area. The western edge of the path is lined with large trees that border the nearby creek.

Studies have shown a reduction in blood pressure from awe walks as short as 15 minutes taken only once a week. Every time I go, I learn something new and other studies have shown that learning makes a person feel better.

I must confess these recent "awe" walks do lift my spirit. So, I'm saying "good bye" daily constitutional, "helloĒ awe walk!"

Left: Walking path near the creek; right: a plaque near a sapling identifies the species and provides additional information; center: even in winter, awe inspiring.

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