With physical injuries often having a knock-on effect where our mental health is concerned, writer Danielle de Wolfe switched pace for patience – by joining walking group Walk Talk Walk.
As a runner, placing one foot in front of the other come rain or shine has long been my go-to form of therapy. A safe space in which to mull over dilemmas, rationalise anxieties and process the stresses of day-to-day life, nothing quite compares to running for allowing the mind to run free.
But recently, that free, self-directed therapy was taken away from me. Anyone who has experienced a sports-related injury will be only too familiar with the fact that minor niggles can often become more serious problems if ignored. For me, increasing the frequency and distance of my runs during an incredibly stressful period at work resulted in more twinges, tight muscles and an (albeit temporary) case of sciatica that quite literally stopped me in my tracks.
The electrical charge being sent through my glute and down my leg unfortunately coincided with contracting Covid. After two years of (rather smugly) dodging the virus, it caught me – or rather, I caught it. It was as though my body had hit a wall and was finally saying “enough is enough”.
As with many runners I’ve spoken to since contracting Covid, the long-lasting effects of the virus – primarily breathlessness – caught me off guard. When all obvious symptoms had subsided, I laced up, hit the pavements and… found myself gasping for air. Over the space of three weeks, I’d gone from running half marathon distances with ease to my lungs feeling as though they were on fire after a slow, thousand metre plod.
So, how do you cope when the mental health crutch you’ve lent on for much of your adult life is suddenly taken away? The answer, in this instance, centred around walking.
On a personal level, mental stress has always translated into a form of physical fuel. Running, by default, had become my coping mechanism, burning off the anxious energy. Knowing that I needed movement to mentally function, I signed myself up for a lunchtime stroll with exercise and mental health advocates Walk Talk Walk.
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”During lockdown, people started walking more than they ever had done,” says Jessica Mary Robson, founder of the Walk Talk Walk and Run Talk Run communities. “Whereas ordinarily they wouldn’t make time for something as gentle as walking, suddenly they started seeing the benefits of it. It’s as much about connecting with other people as it is about the movement itself.”
Walking communities are like running clubs, only more accessible
I’d been fortunate enough to come across Run Talk Run back in 2017 after chancing upon Robson’s Instagram page. An avid runner living in London, Robson had founded a mental health initiative called Run Talk Run that involved weekly 5km jogs along the River Thames, starting and ending in Southwark, south London.
Joining her runs at a time when the initiative was attracting a handful of people each week, the group became a safe space to share anxieties, vent about life and listen to the worries of your fellow humans while plodding along at the pace of the slowest member. It was, effectively, a peer-to-peer mental health support community based around exercise; Walk Talk Walk mirrors this premise.
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In the midst of my running frustrations, remembering that the group’s motto is about patience rather than pace proved invaluable.
“What we find is, even our regular runners will opt to do more gentle movements some weeks instead,” explains Robson. “So Walk Talk Walk hits two sorts of people really: those who would never run and those who would like an alternative to running here and there.”
Creating the first Walk Talk Walk in November 2020, there are now 21 walking groups in existence – including two in the United States. Robson describes them as a “good entry point” for those dipping their toes into the exercise pool. There are other groups out there doing similar things too, like Mental Health Mates.
Joining my first walking club
Signing up using the Heylo app, I join their North Kensington branch on a sunny Monday lunchtime. Meeting in a local park described as a “hidden gem” by walk leader Sophie Elliott-O’Dea, I’m greeted with a friendly wave and told that the group is “never about pace”.
Joined by one other walker, the three of us set off on 1km loops of the park, with the aim of completing 5km within the hour. “If it’s less, it’s less,” reassures Elliott-O’Dea with a smile. Chatting as we walk, it becomes clear that Elliott-O’Dea found herself in a similar position following Covid, substituting running for the slower pace and community spirit of Walk Talk Walk.
“Over the pandemic, my fitness went down after catching Covid and the running part was what made me feel a bit unconfident at that point,” explains the leader. “When I recovered, I still couldn’t run. You feel well enough to go to work and you feel OK, but you can’t run and that was hard. You get frustrated. I could run a marathon and now I’m here.”
Describing how leading this small, non-judgmental community in a corner of west London proved just the remedy, the benefits – both in terms of confidence and endorphins – are obvious to Elliott-O’Dea.
“Walk Talk Walk is always going to get me outside and I always feel that I’m in a safe space – whether I’ve got much to say or not. It’s that sense of community that drives me,” says Elliott-O’Dea.
The mental health benefits of walking
It’s easy to see how the laid back nature of a weekday stroll can open up unexpected avenues of conversation. Despite being in the company of two relative strangers, the atmosphere is both welcoming and relaxed. The notable age gap between members and varied life experience means that conversation is interesting and packed full of handy tidbits of knowledge.
Having met the group feeling a little on edge, the brisk pace, fresh air and glorious sunshine leaves me feeling remarkably serene. I’ve offloaded stresses I might have otherwise carried through the day and the option of talking to strangers allows for more objective discussion. And, as with running, there’s also a palpable rush of endorphins at the end.
Sure, there’s nothing quite like a brisk run to shake off the cobwebs, but I’m now certain that walking should always be a consideration if pace is taken off the table. It’s an experience that can only be described as peer-led walking therapy meets rehab.
“It’s about being in the company of people who ‘get it’,” smiles Elliott-O’Dea before we part ways.
“Even though I sell the group as me being the one here for you and this being a safe place for you to talk, I find that every time I’m able to share or learn from others. And that has just been wonderful. I always leave feeling better – and I hope others feel the same.”
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