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Many of my family and friends have mentioned to me their dread of the upcoming cold and dark months of winter. The usual instinct to hibernate, feel sluggish, and be sedentary is magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which up to now, has shown no signs of easing.

With that thought in mind, I want to highlight the benefits of the simple act of walking. Walking is one of the most underrated forms of exercise. The great author, Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”

It turns out walking is an effective approach for achieving lifelong good health. People who walk at a rate of 4 mph, generate enough physical activity to greatly reduce their risk of heart disease. In addition, brisk walking can also boost one’s immune system.

If you are not a habitual walker, then there is no need to worry. Don’t be in a hurry to achieve competitive results. In the beginning just try going for a walk at a nice, comfortable pace. To start off with, walk for anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, without trying to go fast. If you measure the time it takes to walk a mile, chances are it will take approximately 15-25 minutes, depending on your level of conditioning. Once you become aware of the time it takes to walk a mile, that be-comes your target to improve aon, going forward. If you are unable to walk a mile, then keep in mind, any distance is beneficial.

Weather permitting, walking outdoors is the preferred setting. Studies have shown that walking outdoors in nature promotes a positive mood and reduces negative thoughts. The mental boost that one can experience from walking has been shown to increase one’s creative thought processes. Walking has also been shown to enhance memory and cognitive activity. As little as a 10 minute walk can relieve symptoms of anxiety and stress, which are in no short supply these days.

Ultimately a good goal is to walk for exercise at least three to five times per week. Each walk should aim for 15 to 60 minutes duration. Keeping on a regular schedule requires willpower, but ultimately it will become a habit forming routine, and it will make you feel better. It can be helpful to schedule walks with a friend or family member, or with the canine in your household. Having someone to walk with creates a higher level of commitment to maintain a consistent routine.

As the weather gets colder, be sure to dress appropriately wearing multiple layers. Once snow and ice set in, it’s safer to avoid outdoor walks, unless you are very physically fit, and to seek an alternative indoor exercise.

Remember the words of the American naturalist, John Burroughs. “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

As we enter the winter months, a time when we spend more time indoors, it’s important to stay focused on the ways each one of us can help to combat the spread of COVID-19. Remember the three W’s: wear a mask; watch your distance (6 feet apart or more), wash your hands often. It bears repeating, that at this stage in the pandemic, the most effective strategy for reducing COVID-19 illness, is to follow the three W’s.

Dr. Mark Roth writes about internal medicine for the Cleveland and Columbus Jewish News. He is an internal medicine physician with University Hospitals in Cleveland.

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