Why ruin a good walk with exercise?

I call my new street “Blue Jay Alley” because blue jays fly back and forth across the whole length of the road, squawking and cawing at each other all day long.  When I mentioned this to a neighbour, she looked at me in confusion and said she’d never seen a blue jay on her daily walks.  She wondered if her dog might scare them away.  I wondered where her attention is at on her walks, along with her intention for walking, and how those might differ from my own.  Is she consciously training her senses to tap into the nature around her, like I do?  Is exercise her primary motivation for being outside, or is it just about moving and being in nature, like it is for me?

I didn’t always walk for the sake of being outside and being open to what I might discover. Up until about ten years ago, my purpose for walking was to get from point A to point B, as quickly as possible.  If I did go for a pleasure walk on the weekend, I wanted it to be as long a walk as possible so I could count it as reasonable exercise.  Ultimately, how far I went and how fast I moved was how I measured the success of the walk.

That all changed in an instant when I experienced the first of many debilitating back spasms to come.  This spasm was preceded by one of my typical fast walks in the neighbourhood.   I had a business call to take and I was rushing to take my dog for a good trot before then.  I remember feeling tightness in my hips, legs and lower back as my dog and I rounded each corner of a large square in our area – and I also remember brushing those sensations aside and walking faster.  My dog was probably delighted that I was finally keeping up with her preferred pace, not that I noticed.

When I got back home, I dashed into the washroom with seconds to spare before the call.  When I went to stand up again, BAM.  The large muscles in my lower back crashed down like the dropped lid of a piano.  It was sudden, it was painful, and I was instantly transported back in time to when my father’s back spasmed and he ended up spending three months in a hospital, recovering from spinal surgery.  All of my childhood fears came rushing to the surface.  Would I have to go to the hospital?  Would I have to spend three months, spinning around in a rotator bed like roast chicken on a spit, recovering from major surgery?

Shaken by the pain and anxiety, I somehow got myself into bed although I can’t really remember. I do have a memory of getting up in the middle of the night and clinging to the wall with my fingernails to hold me up as I attempted to visit the washroom again.  The next several days of recovery were scary and hard.  Little did I know that I had only begun my chronic pain journey, one that lasts to this day (although I know far more about it now and am learning how to manage it better thanks to advances in the neuroscience of pain and corresponding treatment).

One of the first things I discovered upon recovery was that I could no longer walk the way I used to, nor for as long.  I could no longer stride quickly down the street without that tightness and tension flaring up in my hips and legs, which stoked my anxiety about having another spasm.  I started seeing a lot more of a very few blocks in my neighbourhood.

Eventually, I began to notice more as I wandered more slowly – more birds, and different kinds of them: jays, cardinals, goldfinches, woodpeckers, a kingfisher by a nearby river. More trees of different varieties, and I now observed how the leaves on one variety changed colour faster than those on another.  The clouds in the sky – my goodness, I never realized how incredible they are, and how vast our sky is overhead, and how comforting that is when I’m feeling stressed.  I saw bunnies, foxes, coyotes, deer (in Toronto!).  I appreciated flower blossoms with new awareness, and even noticed the smell of hot tar in the summer, a smell that took me back to a better aspect of my childhood, all the time I’d spent outside with other kids.

In chatting with a neighbour who shared my growing affinity for slow walking, I found myself saying to him, “why ruin a good walk with exercise?”  His eyes grew wide with the novel excitement of finding someone who thinks like you, and he replied, “Exactly!”  I think we both felt warmed by that shared understanding, in a world that seems driven to walk faster and farther than ever, oblivious to all that gets passed by.

I’m not grateful for my chronic pain experience, but I accept it now and I appreciate how much I have learned in the process.  There is more to life than getting somewhere quickly yet it may take something dramatic to wake us up and see that truth – like a pandemic that has forced so many to slow down when they just want to keep forging ahead.

On your next walk, consider: where is your attention?  And what intention do you want to have ?  It may change what you notice and your experience entirely.


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Maggie Coulter Coaching was founded in 2009.  Specializing in career and leadership coaching for people who have experienced significant interpersonal trauma. Navigate stressful work situations and lead with confidence.

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