This past week Groundhog Day was observed which is a popular tradition in the United States and Canada held on February 2nd. According to folklore, if a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day and sees its shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat back into its den and winter will continue for six more weeks. If it does not see its shadow because of cloudiness, spring is believed to arrive early. There is one particular groundhog named “Phil” which I suppose having that name adds to his credibility, but the world apparently looks to Phil the groundhog each year in waiting for the great prediction on the change of seasons. Last week though as has been the case for several years now, the all-seeing Phil was said to have seen his shadow and predicted we are in store for six more weeks of winter.
I remember first hearing of Groundhog Day when I was a child which was about when I was in kindergarten and my mother explained to me that if a groundhog did not see it’s shadow that day then spring would arrive early. At the time my mother made no mention of “Phil” and I’m glad she didn’t as even at that age I might have had the reaction of: “really Mom? Phil? Come on!” But since I took it to mean it could be any groundhog, I distinctly remember hoping that the groundhog would not see his shadow that day because winter to me meant the possibility of snow and snow meant the possibility of a snow day cancellation of school and in my world snow days were sacred, joyful and to be celebrated.
So I remember immediately equating the groundhog as a potential threat to no-school snow days and I therefore I took an immediate disliking to groundhogs which I had never really paid attention to before. I remember trying to watch for groundhogs on my walk to kindergarten that morning with a plan to try and scare any groundhogs I encountered back into their holes immediately so there would be no risk of ending winter early or losing out on my coveted hopes for unanticipated holidays.
As I reflected back on all that last week when “Groundhog Day” was in the news, I realized just how much times have changed since then because I was five years old when my mother let me walk to kindergarten which was four blocks from where I lived in suburban Philadelphia. I have granddaughters now that age and we wouldn’t let them play in the front yard unsupervised let alone imagine allowing them to walk four blocks in any direction by themselves. It was a different world back then though when things were safer, and the world seemed simpler, and walking was a big part of my life for most of my school years.
In thinking even more about this then I realized that I miss how much I used to walk in the earlier years of my life to get to where I had to go to. I’ve realized that the walking I used to do was when I did some of my best thinking and I have vivid memories of things I observed back then, things I thought of as I walked, and sometimes the people I encountered or talked to as I walked. I remember we sometimes walked as a family like on Sundays in the spring and fall we would walk the three blocks from our house to our church or I would walk with my brother or my sister to the drug store or small grocery store which was about five blocks from our house.
A few months ago, when I took my son Andrew to Philadelphia for an appointment, we drove through my old neighborhood where I grew up and as I thought about this last week, I realized that I didn’t see anyone walking those same streets where my family and I had walked so many times. I suppose everyone is driving to those same places now or I’m sure there are plenty of Uber drivers on standby waiting to help people avoid walking. Of course, there were just less cars back then too and many families I knew had only one car and my grandparents who lived further into the city had never even owned a car in their entire lives. They walked everywhere or now and then they might have taken a bus to get where they needed to go.
Walking is so basic, yet it provides so many different benefits that it makes me wonder why the world walks so much less than it did years ago. Walking provides several physical and mental health benefits, including: improving cardiovascular health; strengthening bones and muscles; increasing flexibility and balance; boosting energy levels; improving mood and reducing stress; aiding weight management; promoting better sleep; enhancing creativity and problem-solving skills; boosting the immune system; and lowering the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.
The walking I do now is mostly on a treadmill in my home gym or in my office but it’s rarely ever outside. One of the things my wife and I have most looked forward to in having recently relocated to the Atlantic coast is to be able to spend our Sunday mornings walking on the beach. We moved here almost two months ago though and so far, we’ve not stepped foot on the beach. I’m hoping as the weather warms and my to-do list gets shorter though that we will make it a priority for at least a weekly walk on the beach as we had originally envisioned.
There are many more benefits to walking outside than there are compared to walking on a treadmill. Walking outside exposes us to sunlight and fresh air, which can help improve mood, boost vitamin D levels, and increase overall well-being. Walking outside also provides a more varied and engaging environment, which can help reduce boredom and promote relaxation and I definitely remember that aspect to walking when I used to do it daily to school and back.
I read an article last year written by a neurologist at Stanford University who was studying the effects of walking outside in reducing anxiety. He was finding that we have to scan our environment back and forth as we walk outside and that back-and-forth eye movement which gets going as we walk induces a similar process in our brains like EMDR Therapy does in helping the two hemispheres of our brain make better sense of the things we are experiencing now or have experienced in the past. I distinctly remember scanning my environment just like that article described when I was walking to kindergarten on Groundhog Day on my quest to keep any of the snow-day threatening varmints I might encounter deep in their holes and away from the sunlight.
I also remember it was in kindergarten that our teacher would take us outside on nice weather days for what she called a “nature walk” and our assignment was to see what things we could observe that others might not and to share about that when we came back inside from our walk. I can remember the innocence and wonder of those times in seeing things often for the very first time as I looked up through the branches of old Oak trees or at a particular garden pond we would pass near our school. I remember seeing robins and squirrels and sometimes cardinals or blue jays or insects like caterpillars or fireflies and butterflies. Walking outside and those nature walks provided opportunities to enjoy nature and connect with the environment, which I had no idea back in those days are also great ways to reduce stress and improve mental health. It’s been far too long since I’ve slowed down to observe things in nature like that but it’s definitely on my long-term plan and bird watching is something I especially hope to learn more about and enjoy as I get older – one of these days :)
For now, I’m satisfied just to get time to walk on my treadmill and to count my steps now and then. I’m always impressed by the people I’ve met or heard about who walk incredible distances every day but don’t even bother counting their steps. Years ago, we hosted a pastor from South Africa when we were living in Tampa, Florida and he wanted to go to an electronics store to buy something for his church which wasn’t available to him at home. When he asked where it was, we told him the store was seven miles from our house and he replied: “Oh good then I can just walk there” to which we thought maybe he didn’t quite understand how far miles were. When we elaborated he said that was half the distance he walked daily to his church from his village and he did not want to impose on us to drive him there.
I also remember reading about a study done with Amish farmers which found that many in that culture walk up to twenty miles a day routinely as part of their normal daily lifestyles. That lifestyle was also found to include large quantities of meat and cake in their diets, but they were found to be perfectly fit because of the extreme calories they burned solely from so much walking every day.
So if I’ve not already impressed you with how important walking can be for your physical health and emotional wellness, I will end by saying simply that I encourage you to go outside for a walk at some point this week. Try to take in some of nature and look for something as if you were looking at it for the first time through your eyes as a child again. Find something you can really marvel and be impressed by because those moments when we can realize we are a much smaller part of a much larger and fascinating world around us have been found to greatly reduce anxiety and improve our mental health.
So take a walk, take in nature, watch out for groundhogs and have a great week!