I Will Never, Ever Be Out Of Pain — But Walking Helps

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When I was in my mid-twenties, I developed back problems. They’d started in my early teens, but after years of managing with yoga (and massage when I could afford it), I found that regular strategies for keeping the pain at bay were suddenly ineffective. 

These days, I am in pain all the time — from where my skull cradles my spine all the way down to my heels. I usually can’t move my head much to the right. Many mornings I wake up and spend several stiff minutes convincing my ankles, knees, hips, and lower back to bend and shift, at least enough for me to walk to the kitchen and make coffee.

A couple of years ago I published a nonfiction book about walking. While writing it, I became so enamored with the evolution of bipedal walking across hominin species, with the loss of walking in our car-centric world, and with the role of walkability in our communities and walking in our social connections that I forgot it was the pain that first drew me to walking as a way of life.

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I was twenty-eight when the pain became bad enough to affect both my walking ability and my sleep.

At that point, my husband and I had lived for a year and a half in a far-flung exurban house with a wild field for a yard and choruses of birdsong every morning. It was beautiful, but it was a place designed exclusively for cars. Except for the post office one mile down the road, there was nowhere we could walk to.

Until we’d bought that house, we’d lived only in walkable (or walkable-enough, for able-bodied people) cities and got around on our own two feet, supplemented by excellent or mediocre public transport, depending on the city. We only bought a car when we knew we’d be moving to rural-ish New York, just over the border from my husband’s new office in New Jersey. At that point, walking stopped being a central activity in my life, and the pain began to fester.

I dealt with it for years by driving 45 minutes each way to a good yoga class or doing a pilates video early in the morning, but they were never enough.

The only thing that truly helped, that I could rely on, was walking. I walked our rural road where people drove too fast and the ditch harbored thousands of poison ivy plants. I walked in heat and cold for as long as I could and came home feeling like it was possible to have some kind of relationship with my body that wasn’t just pain.

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It was walking’s effect on my pain that first made me realize how inaccessible walking itself was in our life.

We lived in an exurban home on four acres where there were no sidewalks and no town they could lead to even if they’d existed. Everything was built for the car.

While that lifestyle didn’t cause my pain, it seemed to exacerbate it to the point that some days all I could think about was the pain in my lower back, my neck, my hips, my shoulders. When I walked, my body stiffened and objected, until finally, the pain began to retreat. It never left completely but as long as I walked regularly, it was manageable.

After twelve years of that car-dependent life, we moved to my very walkable hometown in Montana, where I track not my daily footstep count, but how my body feels. During this pandemic year, when I was no longer walking my kids to school or myself to meetings downtown, I was reminded forcefully of that unwalkable life in New York. My body has stiffened up again; and again, even as I type this, pain signals race from my shoulders, hips, ankles, and neck. 

I want to link to double-blind peer-reviewed studies that prove the connection between walking and the reduction in my pain. But there are none that I know of. Walking has been found to help with osteoarthritis, possibly because exercise encourages the brain to dampen down pain, and seems to alleviate pain in older people with chronic musculoskeletal pain.

I don’t have osteoarthritis, though, and I’m in my 40s; I don’t, in fact, have any diagnosis at all. I just have pain and no proof that walking helps except my own experience.

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In this tiny sample size — a single life — I know one thing: when I live a walking life, I am able to keep the pain manageable.

I don’t know what caused all this pain in the first place — possibly several car crashes as a teenager; an untreated spinal fracture as a child; stress; a desk job — or why it refuses to leave my body, but I do know that walking is what saves me from despair and immobility.

When I walk, my body loosens and my spine begins to resume an upright position. My mind releases its tension along with its constant attentiveness to pain.

Writing my book, I came to believe in walking as the first step toward true human thriving, toward physical and mental health and community resilience, the first step to thwart an epidemic of loneliness and avert the scourge of climate change.

But I’d forgotten until this last year that it was the easing of pain that first made me believe that walking should be available and accessible to everyone, never the province of the privileged. Whether we walk on two feet, or in a wheelchair, or with a walker, or leaning on a trusted person’s arm, when we can do nothing else, when we have no other answers, we should all have the right to walk.

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Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time; writes on walking, tech, community, and embodiment.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.