Image Source: Getty / deimagine
I'm a seasonal park ranger and freelance writer, so in spurts and cycles I've been in great shape, hiking every day, climbing mountains, and skiing hard. But in other times, where duties keep me anchored to my desk or I take on more writing clients, I've grown to be much more sedentary than I was in high school or college, when I played sports or at least went to the gym regularly.
I was starting to feel the effects, both mentally and physically, of not moving enough before I set off on a month-long trip through Vietnam in November 2019. I was tired a lot and just felt meh. My body confidence was low, and it felt like my inner critic's voice was louder than it had ever been. So, I resolved to move more simply by walking.
Everything I had ever read touted the many benefits of walking. According to Harvard Medical School, walking can tamp down your sweet tooth, soothe joint pain, boost your immune system, and counter genes that cause you to gain weight. That's a lot of benefit from such a simple action. So, I set out to see if my trip could act as a reset.
Setting a Goal and Sticking to It
Leading up to my trip, I was averaging about 7,000 steps per day, or just 3.2 miles. I set a goal of walking five miles a day going into my month of travel. I wanted a nice round number to tell people when I explained what I was doing, and five miles is roughly the same as the recommended 10,000 steps. But no matter which way you look at it, it was a lot more than I had been walking.
Looking back at my health app, I didn't miss a day of walking from Nov. 5 to Nov. 25, even while spending hours on a bus or plane, sleepless nights in a hostel dorm, and hot and sweaty afternoons trekking through Southeast Asia! In fact, for the month of November, I averaged more than seven miles a day, easily topping my five-mile goal. And there were no evenings when I had to seat dance to Lizzo with my phone in my hand to make up a missed step count.
Image Source: Julia Smit
How Walking Changed Me and My Body
My physical transformation isn't one that would ever be featured in impressive before-and-after shots. But it was definitely there. My leg muscles were popping. I was doing yoga at home just after my return, and I turned to my boyfriend after a few breaths in boat pose to say, "Do you see my quads?!" All I wanted to do was show off my legs, but it was officially winter, and I didn't have many opportunities beyond strutting around the apartment in shorts while I cranked the heat.
But even before I returned home, I was feeling the positive effects of all those steps. I had more energy, even though I was seeing a different part of the world each day, while still writing for clients along the way. I even started a workout program about halfway through the trip, doing bodyweight exercises in the room of my homestay to work other muscles.
Though my body hadn't changed too dramatically, my view of it had reversed completely. Those negative thoughts about my lumps and bumps were gone, even if the lumps and bumps weren't. I was proud of what my body could accomplish, I felt strong and powerful, and all that made me more comfortable in my skin.
Image Source: Julia Smit
How to Do This Without Booking a Trip of Your Own
Being in Vietnam is not a requirement for making a walking experiment like this work, but there were a few ways that traveling naturally helped me get more steps. By setting this goal just before my trip, I put myself in a situation where it was possible to make it a priority - there were no dishes to wash or movies to see, and spending time on Netflix instead of going out to explore felt like a crime.
But even if you're not traveling the world, you can work to change your routine and make walking a means of getting things done. In Vietnam, my general terror of city motorbike riding and uncertainty about booking taxis or rideshares solo meant that I walked for everything, whether it was sightseeing, getting my morning coffee, or going to the pharmacy on a seemingly endless quest for bug spray.
At home in rural Montana, walking isn't always feasible because high-speed highways and winding roads with blind corners make it difficult to get from home to town on foot. But I've kept my step count up by parking and walking instead, even if it just means crossing the expansive Costco parking lot to hit up Lowe's, rather than driving from store to store. Or taking a walk in the morning to jump start my step count, and then rounding it out with an after-dinner stroll - or hike, depending on the day - to meet my goal.
I still shoot for 10,000 steps every day, but it's easier to let life get in the way when I don't have a jagged limestone coastline to walk, or a jungle trail to explore just minutes from where I'm staying. Even though I'm not still consistently walking five miles in my daily life, doing this experiment for a short time has given me insight that has stuck with me. Seeing how good walking made me feel when it was top of mind each day has given me the tools to recognize when I'm not feeling as great and I need to take steps (often literally) to make myself feel better.