As I watched Legally Blonde a few weeks ago, Elle Woods’ quote, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy,” stood out as I thought about the past year quarantining in New York City.
Since the start of COVID-19, I have found the best thing that I can do for my mental health is get out of my apartment and take a walk. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was able to take walks during the day because of the break in the middle of my four class periods. When I had gym class, I could combine that period with my break in order to take a 70-minute walk in Central Park.
This year, however, my gym teacher has not allowed the option of walking for exercise. Instead, we are expected to write long workouts on Google Docs, filled with extremely detailed descriptions on Google Classroom. He asks us to do the workout and include the exercise name, the muscles involved in that particular exercise, the sets, the reps, and the date. My gym class has this assignment every two weeks, and the ironic part of this assignment is that many students are “faking gym.”
These workouts are unreasonable for several reasons. For starters, many of us live in small apartments and a lot of the workouts assigned involve utilizing space and equipment that we do not have. Even worse, some of these workouts involve jumping, and my classmates and I are worried about disturbing our downstairs neighbors.
Instead of doing these workouts, I have learned to “fake gym” as well and take a mental health walk instead. Walking brings many benefits to us, especially during COVID-19. Some of these include reducing anxiety, relieving stress, improving our moods, increased productivity, and improving our ability to focus.
To learn more about the physical and mental health benefits of walking, I talked to Dr. Matthew Goldfine, a New Jersey-based clinical psychologist, and Dr. David Sabgir, a general cardiologist in Columbus, Ohio.
- Walking can lower anxiety
Dr. Sabgir, who is also the CEO and founder of Walk with a Doc, cited a recent review finding more than a 20% decrease in anxiety due to physical activity, and he noted that walking can work in synergy with anti-anxiety medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
- Walking can reduce stress
Dr. Sabgir explained how walking lowers our cortisol levels, which is our body’s own steroids and this reduces stress. This could be the most direct way walking reduces anxiety as, in nature, walking acts as “an additive way of lowering our stress.” Dr. Sabgir also emphasized the social connection of walking which can help lower stress. Because COVID-19 can be isolating, wearing a mask and walking with friends outside while remaining socially distant can be stress-relieving. help.
- Walking can lead to a better mood
As previously mentioned, our moods can be improved by walking through endorphins. Dr. Sabgir walked (pun intended) me through how walking promotes neurogenesis, which creates neural connections. A part of our brain, the hippocampus, helps regulate moods and, through exercise, this can grow stronger and bigger. In other words, by walking, our moods can get better!
- Walking can increase productivity
With virtual and hybrid learning, it is so easy to experience Zoom fatigue during the school day. By stepping outside and seeing the sunlight or moving our bodies, we can do more work during the day. Dr. Sabgir said a rule of thumb he’s heard is “10 minutes of walking can really give you two hours of energy.”
- Walking can enhance focus
After a few hours of Zoom school, I sometimes get stuck on a homework problem. To help me get through this problem and regain my focus, I take a walk. Afterward, I have cleared my head and gained a new mindset or way of solving this problem that had eluded me before the walk.
Extra Credit: Walking can lead to better sleep
I attend a high school with many students who are overachievers, so, as a bonus, Dr. Sabgir mentioned another benefit of walking: better quality of sleep.
Dr. Goldfine emphasized the importance of having schools recognize the mental health issues students are dealing with as opposed to sweeping these issues under the rug. Ultimately, I hope that virtual gym class can pivot from solely focusing on physical health to including our mental health and social well-being. To reach this goal, my gym teacher might take into account how a low-impact exercise might benefit students during this exhausting and isolating time. Elle Woods was actually a genius and her wisdom is timeless. No wonder she thrived at Harvard!