His is blue. Mine is pink. Natch. His loiters in his trousers, silently brooding. Ready for action whenever the moment might present — at which point, activity is energetic and generally sweaty. Whereas mine hums quietly away — no rush, after all — clipped to a bra strap or tucked into a waistband. For we are now FitBud fiends, the Gremlin and me, and every step counts.
And oh my, I can be smug. Thing is, I have a slightly more flexible working day, so once that morning cuppa has settled, some time soon after 7.00, I can be up and out, rambling as the mood takes me, back in time for breakfast. Anything after that on the step front, frankly, is a bonus. Whereas, after delivering my morning cuppa (bless him), the PG Tips Gremlin is essentially tied to the desk all day until he can escape for that burst of evening activity, yomping up a steep hill, say, or running round in a circle somewhere, doing his best to avoid slippery grass and rabbit holes.
So when I whip that counter out as the toast browns, and I’ve done (on some days, at least) 10,000 to his 100, well, yes… ok. I’m smug.
It’s been an interesting experience, not to say educational, walking out so early in the day, and there’s stuff I think you should know, if you feel inspired to follow suit.
Firstly: there are rules
I’m still at the L-plate stage, but what I have learned is that it’s good form to sing a cheery hello at any random stranger whilst wandering along a designated walkway (those things we used to call ‘paths’) but, rather like having only so many f**ks to give, so it is with greetings. Should you pass that fellow walker a second time, as you retrace your respective steps towards home, despite your enthusiastic ‘Hello again!!’ he will merely give you a look. A look that says: ‘You have broken the rules. Be gone with you’.
And pass that same random stranger again, some time later — on a pavement in town perhaps, outside of that morning walk window — you must quickly muster a sneeze, or an irresistible urge to check your phone, or other such distraction. Anything but make eye contact.
Rule two (or is it three?) regarding cheery hellos is that these are generally frowned upon after 9.00am. This begins kicking in about fifteen minutes before the hand slides toward the top of the hour, as hail-fellow-well-mets make way for the wary gaze and hesitant smile, fleeting moments when you must quickly decide: full-toothed grin or fluttering lip-twitch?
After the hour, you greet at your peril.
And, rules aside, I have observed other things
Before that 9.00am rubicon at least, everyone is so cheerful — and the wetter it is, the better — with one exception: runners of the middle-aged bloke persuasion. Miserable. Every damned time. What was that saying, so beloved of many such a man in my youth? ‘Cheer up luv, it might never ‘appen’.
And, who knows? Maybe time really will stand still for you, what with all this pavement pounding you’re doing.
But oh, ‘White Van Man’! For you, I have a renewed appreciation. Maybe it’s the Cumbrian air. I don’t know. But when I’m waiting to cross a busy road on the edge of town — particularly in the middle of that early morning school run — and the pavement has inconveniently run out and switched to the other side, it’s you and your fellow white van men who slow to a stop despite the queues of traffic trailing impatiently behind you. Everyone else? Zzshoom… zzshoom… zzshoom….
And, while we’re there, what is it with cyclists, young and old (let’s call them hooligans) — usually blokes, or blokes-in-waiting, and rarely wearing helmets. Or actually holding onto the handlebars — for whom even the narrowest of pavements apparently exist for their convenience, rather than the safety of pedestrians?
Or the cyclists (hooligans disguised as sensible adults through the ingenious deployment of cycle helmets), on walkways which also serve as ‘cycleways’? People whose physical wellbeing and footwear are so much more important than mine, clearly. These are paths with barely room for two people and their four-legged friends to pass on foot; regularly frequented by double-buggy pushers somehow also managing two dogs and a toddler on a wobbling trike.
A fetid ribbon of who knows what lies on either side of one section, fallen branches lie decomposing for days on end, restricting passage. So woe betide the walker, for example, who happens to be a little bit deaf on one side <puts hand in air> should she fail to react quickly enough to the menacing ‘Bringg! Bringgggg!’ bearing down behind her at speed.
It’s hard, you know, when you only have one fully-working ear, to tell which side that sound is coming from, which way to jump. But, should you manage to step gingerly to the side, allowing this person to pass at speed, you’ll not get so much as a thank you. Let alone a cheery hello.
This morning offered a different way. I caught it in time, the not-quite-as-urgent ‘Bring!!’ Same walkway, same fetid ribbons, same fallen branches. Turning towards the sound, I saw her, noticeably slowing as she approached. Drawing alongside, she turned her head. ‘I didn’t want to make you jump,’ she said, smiling. ‘Thank you,’ I trilled, my own smile following her down the track as she picked up momentum again. Footwear, life and warm fuzzy feeling for a fellow human being intact. S’all it takes, guys.
Come the afternoon, I’ve noticed (on those days I really couldn’t drag myself out of bed), an entirely different cast of characters comes out to play. It’s decidedly busier too. Perhaps fewer opportunities to harry hapless walkers from their chosen path. But I know where my money would be on any ‘hooligan two-wheelers vs the mobility scooter mob’ or ‘elderly ladies enjoying a wander into town, walking stick to the right, wheeled shopper to the left’ stand-off.
So why the hungry, early morning walk when all I really want to do is doze a while?
Hooligans and fallen branches notwithstanding, I finally get it: why being up and about before the rest of the world is worth the effort. It’s so much quieter for a start, the hum of two and four-wheeled traffic only evident on the return leg of my journey. There’s a pleasing freshness in the air even during a three-day ‘Cumbrian heatwave’, far fewer people about on the walkways and in the parks (but definitely more dogs), and everything just seems more meditative. Those steps keep clocking up, I get to practice my cheery hellos, focus on breathing mindfully, mentally plan my next week’s yoga classes, and momentarily reimagine myself as a seagull (more about which later).
I have never been a ‘morning person’, preferring a slower start followed by a much later end to the working day. And there’s been many a morning my body has most definitely not felt like crossing the kitchen to the kettle, let alone heading out for a 60-minute-plus tootle round town. But it’s surprising how much better I feel for making the effort.
According to Shane O’Mara, author of ‘In Praise of Walking’, that’s down to increased blood flow easing sore muscles and allowing the ‘monkey mind’ to clear (the citta vritti we talk about in yoga), making space for more creative thought.
O’Mara explores the ‘vital relationship between movement of the body and the flow of thinking’, the idea that ‘walking is, paradoxically, a form of active idleness’ that ‘facilitates engaged mind-wandering’.
So this isn’t so much about any fitness or cardiovascular benefit but the miracle of creative cognition that happens when we step away from the screen or drawing board, and harness the power of movement. If podcasts are more your thing, listen to O’Mara talking to Dr Rangan Chattergee about this ‘superpower’ we ‘didn’t know we had‘.
The benefits of walking first thing in the morning, while still in a fasted state can be profound. An analysis of 27 studies, carried out in 2016, concluded that ‘aerobic exercise performed in the fasted state induces higher fat oxidation than exercise performed in the fed state’.
Interviewed by Jonathan Wolf for the Zoe podcast, Dr Javier Gonzalez, an associate professor of Human Physiology at the University of Bath, explained that insulin levels tend to be lower when fasting and a brisk, fasted walk encourages the body to burn through the fat stores in muscles more efficiently. You can see benefits with as little as 30 minutes a day and you don’t even have to do it all in one go.
It’s a stress-buster too. Neuroscientist Dr Andrew Huberman suggests that ‘optic flow’, the movement of objects past us as we walk, can help soothe the mind and quieten our fight or flight responses.
‘Self-generated optic flow — by walking, running or cycling — shifts the brain into a state of relaxation that’s not seen when you’re stationary. When you move through a space and you’re active, there’s a natural calming of the brain circuits involved in threat and threat detection.’
Then there’s the way light coming into our eyes affects our whole sense of wellbeing.
People, he says, can become ‘jet-lagged’ in their own homes. ‘They’re looking at screens at night and not getting enough photons or light in their eyes during the day’ which can cause ‘severe mood disruptions’ and trigger a ‘pro-depressive circuit’.
There’s evidence now that ‘if the light comes in at the right time of day, you get an elevation in mood. If the light comes in at the wrong time of day, meaning at night, in the middle of the night, in particular between the hours of 11.00pm and 4.00am, you get activation of this pro-depressive circuit that’s also signalled to the pancreas. So it throws off blood sugar regulation and metabolism, and can start creating some serious problems’.
But then, sometimes, you just want to be a seagull
The river was in full spate on this particular day, after all the ‘drought rain’ we’d been having up here in the north of England. Indeed it pretty much rained on and off, with the odd warmer blue spell, throughout the scorched earth ‘Armageddon’ screeching from our summer news feeds. Anyway, the mobile rang and I knew it wouldn’t be a short call, so I sat on a bench by the water’s edge to chat. And that’s when I spotted it: the ‘seagull game’.
A dozen or more of them, travelling down the river at speed, port-side on to the direction of travel, gazing my way, feigning nonchalance. Seconds before the bridge, they took off as one, a couple of hundred yards back upriver, turning in the air to touch down once more, noses downstream — before swivelling in synchrony, like so many yachts turned on their moorings, sterns away.
Bobbing along with remarkable speed, back towards the bridge. Then off again. Rinsing and repeating. Rinsing and repeating. Probably all day long. Perfectly in tune with themselves, the water’s tumbling flow and each other. Not a care in the world.
Like I said, sometimes you just want to be a seagull.