Strong Women’s editor Meriam Ahari spent all day chained to her desk, until lockdown made her prioritise her mental health. For Fighting Fit: Lockdown Lessons While WOFH (working out from home), she writes about how lunchtime walks helped her mood.
Spending almost an entire year in self-isolation has been challenging to say the least, but even the darkest of clouds has its silver lining. Because of lockdown, global carbon emissions are at a record low, more dogs have been adopted from animal shelters than ever before and companies are reassessing the value of remote and flexible working. Our priorities have shifted to make time for what’s most important in life: our loved ones and our own wellbeing. For me personally, the rainbow at the end of this storm will be the simple daily habit that I picked up during lockdown, which has not only changed my life, but benefited my mental health: walking.
Before relocating to the UK, I used to live and work in New York – where eating lunch at your desk was not only the norm, but expected of you. In a competitive industry where there was always someone ready and willing to take your job for a lesser wage, there was a need to show just how hard working and efficient you could be. Looking back, I realise not only how ridiculous this sounds, but how unsustainable working around the clock is.
Regardless, this ingrained ‘rat race’ mentality followed me to England where I continued eating my lunch at my desk while trucking through emails, reports and copy. Mind you, this was a daily packed lunch, which meant that there was never a need for a quick run to Pret or Leon to see what the outside world looked like during midday.
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Then lockdown hit, and my new reality of having to work, eat, exercise and sleep under the same roof of my small one-bedroom flat began to take its toll. I knew that I had to step away from my desk to keep myself from having a mental breakdown – so I decided to use my lunch break to take a walk outside.
It felt more thrilling than it probably should have. It was around May of 2020 that I enforced this new rule into my working day – so the sun was shining, flowers were blooming, and the birds were chirping (I live in Camden so the sounds of wildlife have never competed over the noise of drunken singing or chatty pub crawls – who knew we had so many birds?).
Of course, I understood that taking a walk outdoors was healthy for me – increasing both my daily step count and my exposure to vitamin D from sunlight. But what I didn’t expect to feel, was such an extreme difference in my mood.
Taking the time to step away from my work, and mostly my screen, seemed to help my mind and body reset. When I went back to my desk after walking, I felt less stressed, more focused and even energised (without the third cup of coffee I used to head to the office kitchen for in order to make it through the day).
Even my work was benefitting from my outdoor strolls. Coming back to my laptop with a fresh set of eyes and renewed clarity enabled me to be more productive and efficient when tackling the second half of my day. In the past, I would usually feel run down and my brain fried by the time 3pm rolled around – but walking gave me my second wind.
Taking a midday walk with my husband also helped because we would ask each other how our days were going, and by the end of the walk, we would have talked out any work dilemmas or frustrations – helping each other to find solutions.
It wasn’t long before my daily walks in the sunshine became the highlight of my day – feeling the heat on my back and taking note of all the beautiful homes and gardens that I had never noticed before. Not only was walking great exercise – and just as effective as running, I later learned – but it gave me a high. It was the mood-boosting endorphin rush that I needed to break up the monotony of working from home life and quarantine.
If my experience is not enough to convince you, look at the science. In 2018, Public Health England and the Royal College of General Practitioners urged the nation to walk for at least 10 minutes every day to reduce the risk of type II diabetes. Plus, studies show that walking reduces the risk of cardiovascular events by 31% and death by 32%. Now, do you feel like hitting the road? I guess that depends on what it looks like outside at this given moment.
My enthusiasm for my daily walks diminished once winter came along – trudging through rain, with the biting cold nibbling away at my fingertips and nothing to admire but overcast skies. Regardless, I’ve forced myself to continue walking, mainly because we ended up getting a puppy (also highly recommended for experiencing joy while self-isolating). My winter walks have not evoked the same elation, but they’re essential in maintaining my sanity. They prevent me from planting my seat in the same spot for eight hours straight, which is surprisingly very easy to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have days where I feel absolutely swamped with work and would rather use my time getting ahead than doing my usual laps for the umpteenth time. But on days like this, I use a trick that I learned from Stylist’s entertainment director, Helen Bownass. I simply take a loop around the block. This takes no more than five or 10 minutes (depending on how fast my pace is), but even this brief jaunt is enough to make me feel refreshed and rebooted.
Like a domino effect, my daily walks furthered my need to find a better work-life balance. So, instead of putting in overtime to accommodate my never-ending to-do list, I forced myself to stick to office hours. After all, there would always be something else that needed to get done and I had to remind myself that if I was still in an office setting, I wouldn’t be sitting at my desk until 9pm checking emails.
My daily lunchtime walks have become non-negotiable and will continue to be, even when I return to an office one day. Whether it’s five minutes or 60 minutes, you’ll reap the benefits. So, I challenge you to do the same – if only to lift your spirits.
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IMAGES: Meriam Ahari
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