What I Learned from 31 Walks in 31 Days (Part 2)

Montlake Cut.jpg

In my last post, I talked about what I’ve learned from setting my own realistic health goals as part of a 31-day walking challenge earlier this summer.  While consistency allowed me to experience many of the physical changes that I had hoped for (increased endurance, improved muscle tone, etc.), I was most surprised by the non-physical benefits that this challenge provided me.

1.  Mindfulness, slowing down, and why a “dead end” is all relative.  The most important change I experienced as a result of this challenge was slowing down and becoming more mindful of what was happening around me.  I’ve lived in Seattle for 16 years now, and because I drive a lot for work, I’ve always felt like I was familiar with most of the city.  But it felt like a new place once I was walking (whether in familiar or unfamiliar neighborhoods).  Walking allows you to access areas of the city that you wouldn’t see driving.  And even when I drove in those places afterwards, I saw them differently.

(For example, in Seattle, street signs with a pedestrian symbol at the end mean there is additional pedestrian access once the street ends.  Some of these lead to public staircases, some lead to walkways between yards, and some are waterfront access points.  None of these views are accessible by car.  So I was able to see unique parts of the city that can only be experienced on foot.  And I started to notice that when I saw a “Dead End” sign, it often meant that there was a staircase behind it as a shortcut to a hill.  It may be a dead end for a car, but it is often hiding a great pedestrian access point, so now I seek them out!)

These daily walks became a mindfulness practice for me, a kind of walking meditation.  Most days, I didn’t have a set route planned, just an area of the city that I planned to explore during my walk.  As a result, I came across so many beautiful yards, community gardens, parks, mountain and water views, beaches, public art installations, and local businesses that I’d have missed while driving.  There is little flat land in Seattle, so accessing these sites required a lot of hill and stair climbing, but in the end, the physical exercise ended up being the added bonus, not my primary purpose.

2.  Breaking out of a rut.  I was amazed (and a little embarrassed) at how little I actually knew about the city I’ve lived and worked in for all these years.  I realized that I had gotten into a rut in terms of what parts of the city I spent time in and what routes I took to get to familiar places.  I had inadvertently made my world very small.  But walking all over the city really helped me feel more connected to my community.  If you ask me now where my favorite neighborhoods or views of Seattle are, I’ll give you a much different (and longer) list than I would have before the challenge!

3.  Curiosity (and stair climbing!).  Once I started exploring, it really fed my curiosity.  Many days, I walked farther than planned because I really wanted to see more of an unfamiliar neighborhood.  I know that I would never have walked as many miles that month if I’d been on a treadmill or on a familiar walking path.  And once I realized that Seattle has a whole network of hidden public staircases, I discovered an unlikely love of stair climbing – no matter how tired I am, when I see one, my curiosity at what’s at the top of it wins every time.

When I first set this challenge for myself, I was pretty sure I could complete it, but I didn’t expect it to turn out the way it actually did.  I had no idea it would create such curiosity in me to explore the city or that I would develop this fascination with stair climbing.  It really showed me that it’s important to be open to what can happen when you challenge yourself.

4.  Overcoming my biggest obstacle (aka getting out of my own way).  Early on in the challenge, I realized that my main obstacle to overcome in order to complete this challenge was my own thoughts and beliefs.  I had been dealing with asthma for close to a year and was deconditioned compared to my usual abilities.  So climbing hills and stairs felt extra challenging for me.  I realized that I was telling myself “I can’t” a lot when it came to pushing myself.  Once I became aware of that, I had to make an effort to change that to “It will be challenging, but I can” when it came to pushing myself physically.  (However, I do want to say that I wasn’t pushing myself beyond my safe abilities related to asthma.  It’s important to talk with your health care provider about safe exercise guidelines based on your own medical history.)

The Results:  Looking just at the data, I accomplished a lot in those 31 days (especially compared to previous months when I wasn’t exercising regularly).  I wore my Fitbit throughout the month, and based on the data it collected, I walked about 347,000 steps or 150 miles in May (the equivalent of just under the distance of 6 marathons).  That’s proof that consistency pays off, even if you only accomplish a little bit each day.

As I had hoped, the challenge helped me to start a new walking habit, and since May, I have continued to walk regularly.  I build in some rest days each week, but I’m finding that I walk more miles on the days I do walk, so my monthly mileage since then has remained close to what I achieved in May.  I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of new areas of Seattle to explore, so I’ve continued to vary my walking routes most days.  Even on days that I revisit familiar neighborhoods or routes, I vary it a little by choosing a different street to walk on or taking a small detour if I see an interesting park or community space.  It’s amazing how much more you see in your community if you start paying attention!

Over the years, I’ve been surprised at the number of clients who assume that as health care providers, we don’t understand the challenges our clients have to overcome to improve their health.  The truth is, most of us struggle with some of the same obstacles that our clients do, and often it’s because of our own history of health issues that we became health care providers in the first place. 

In setting this challenge for myself, I really became my own client.  I hope that sharing my experience of setting goals and staying committed to a challenge is helpful to those who read this.  Please let me know if I can help you achieve your goals through my Lifestyle OT and/or health coaching services!