Moving meditation: Why walking commutes are awesome

January 13 2014 | Guest post by Stealmystapler
The view on my morning commute.
The view on my morning commute.

I grew up in the Midwest, and my family was typical: we drove everywhere. I accepted that as just the way things were until I went to college. I walked a lot as an undergraduate student, and felt the lifestyle change deeply when I returned home upon graduation. It was freeing to return to walking as a graduate student, and I chose an apartment with an easy bike commute (two miles) for my first real job.

When I moved to upstate New York for a new job a year ago, my apartment search revolved around a few primary factors: price, dog-friendliness, and proximity to my new job. I found the perfect place — only a mile and a half away — and we made the move. I drove to work for the first few days, to figure out local traffic patterns and routes, and then started walking. And honestly, my morning and evening commute has become one of the best parts of my work day.

During the crazy early months of a new job, my walk gave me time to decompress and think over the day. It also gave me some personal, quiet time before returning home to my job-searching husband. Now, months later, I recognize that my walk has become a moving meditation. I have watched the seasons pass, and notice new things every day: changes in the river I cross, animal prints in the snow, the levels and angles of sunlight over the seasons, the smell of the trees, and which families decorate their homes for seasonal holidays.

More scenes from my walking commute.
More scenes from my walking commute.

I've also discovered a cozy sense of familiarity. Part of my commute runs along a mixed-use path, and I enjoy greeting familiar faces, and meeting dogs and their people. I actually experience the seasons, the warmth of summer and bitter cold of winter, rather than avoiding them. And, as a historian, I feel like I am using the late nineteenth-century city I live in as it was designed — for pedestrians and slower traffic.

On a more practical level, I hate paying for gyms and it is so easy to make excuses to not exercise. By making it practically essential, I know I'll almost always get three miles of walking in every workday. And, of course, I don't mind saving a little money on gas.

For the first few months, coworkers drove alongside me as I walked to offer me rides. They've expressed concern that I don't own a car (I do). Now that cold weather has come, they seem shocked that I would consider being out in the snow any longer than necessary. I've always politely declined their offers and explained that I loved my choice; now, they just shake their heads.

My husband and I have designed our lives around avoiding a "traditional" commute (he passes me by bike in the morning), and we couldn't imagine living any other way.

    • Agreed! Location location location! I pay higher rent to live close to my employer but the amount I save on gas, parking, and health care (free exercise and de-stress time!) make it all completely worth it to me so that I can walk. 🙂

  1. I do enjoy that part of my commute is literally a WALK IN THE PARK. How great is that? It's a long walk or a short bike ride, but either way it's great.

    (Except for some reason my city can't manage to plow the sidewalk over the bridge for like 2 days after it snows, so I have to scale the 2-3 feet of crappy road snow that was plowed onto the sidewalk until they get around to plowing it…)

    • One of my old walking commutes to work went for a majority through the city park. It was LOVELY and so relaxing. I never dreaded going to work or coming home, even in extreme heat or snow.

  2. I cannot agree with all of this enough. When I worked at my last job (in an office away from home rather than out ofnour living room!) my walks to and from work were my down-time, which was so valuable to me no matter what the weather was up to that day. No matter what I had left for the day at work, or had to do that evening when I got home I was guaranteed half an hour to myself each morning and evening.
    Now that I'm working from home, eight months pregnant and on crutches I really miss having that time out in the open each day. I'm hoping that once the offspring arrives the hip issues will vanish and I'll be able to start walking and then jogging again!

    • I feel the same way about my bicycle commute. I love biking to work so much that, since moving to a small town, I drive 45 minutes into the city, park at my sister's place where I keep my bike, and bike for 30 minutes to work.
      There are numerous benefits (exercise, avoiding downtown parking fees), but really I do it because I love my bicycle commute.

  3. My husband has a walking commute (we ditched our cars when we moved to our current place) and he says he loves it. He enjoys the time to clear his head after a busy day. Plus, he enjoys the exercise and says it gives him the freedom to eat more treats without feeling guilty.

  4. I can't rave enough about walking to work! It feels so luxurious, and even with the bitter cold and burning heat and dripping wet weather I wouldn't trade it. (I joke that know it's finally spring when it's pouring so hard that I have to take off my soaked shoes and walk home barefoot.)

  5. I'm walking to work as well and I feel so blessed to have these two little sessions of 15 minutes alone with my self and my music. Can we also talk about the physical health benefits? I lived in the city my entire life but when I moved to the suburbs, I stopped walking, gained weigh and went up a jean size. Now that I've been back to the city for about 6 months, I'm back to my pre-suburb weigh and cardio, is this awesome or what? I'm working in the real estate business, trying to develop work force housing (the idea is to live within walking distance of your work) and I though the other day "We shouldn't try to sell distance, we should try to sell calories and have signs in the city about it. Like Supermarket: 54calories away or Movies: 137 calories away". Yeah, that idea didn't make it to the staff meeting 😛

    • I didn't get into it much, but definitely agree with you on the physical health aspect! I use the Noom app to track my exercise, so I know my commute burns about 240 calories a day. It's one of the first things I think of whenever someone offers me a ride. Will I burn those calories later? Nope, because I'm lazy. Better to keep walking 🙂

      • And THAT is totally why I bought a Fitbit. Made me WAY more conscious about how lazy I usually am and it encourages me to take every walking opportunity that comes along. (Which are few and far between, sadly.)

          • Yes! Three things:
            1. If you have the kind that monitors your sleep, use it. And then don't take it off until you're dressed. That way it goes from the bracelet pouch to your pocket (or in your bra.)
            2. I happen to wear the same pair of pants over and over during the week. So I started to just keep it in the pocket of my jeans that I slip on every morning.
            3. If I'm showering and then gonna put on something else than my same ol' gross pair of jeans, I leave it on top of my cell phone, or on top of my car keys, so I won't leave the house without using it!

            Hmm… should this be a separate Offbeat Home post?

          • So Fitbit does work if put in a pocket? That was one of the things I that was making me uncertain about buying it. I have a larger step tracker that fits in my pocket, but I wasn't sure about the Fitbit because I don't like step trackers that would have to go on a wrist band or on a waistband.

          • Oh yeah totally. You can put it in your pocket or if you get the Fitbit One tracker, it comes with a clip holder so you can put on your waist band if you don't have pockets. But my favorite place to put it is in my bra — that way I won't accidentally wash it.

          • I have the Flex, which is a bracelet that you never take off. Now, you can also get a Force, which doubles at a watch and will also keep track of the stairs you climb. (curse my need to break my typical "never be an early adopter" rule!)

        • Just an FYI to advertisers: I searched "Fitbit" in the Offbeat Home search engine and found these comments. I am now 85% sure I will buy a Fitbit because it received an Offbeat Writer/Editor positive shout out. Before, I was 50/50, but investigating because my fiancé was interested in getting a pair to help us stay connected to a fitness routine during our work days (we work hours apart from each other). This is because I trust Offbeat to not be selling me stuff a real person on their staff hasn't loved. Thanks for keeping it real, ladies.

    • That's kind of like what Alissa said upstream — she pays higher rent to live closer to her work, but she actually saves money on gas, parking, etc. I had actually never thought of how paying higher rent for certain areas could actually SAVE you money!

      • When my partner and I moved from Portland back home to Seattle, we started by keeping the entire city and surrounding areas as options. I did a cost analysis of every location we looked seriously at renting, and the commute-ability of each job that the mister seriously considered. Of course, we didn't know where we were living OR where he was working while doing these, so we rated each job location 1-5 stars based on living in a few more-extreme areas of town, and rated each living location based on similar extremes of potential jobs. As long as the bus commute was 90-minutes or less from any given extreme, we were good. (And actually, believe it or not, that really did leave most of the city and surrounding areas open.) Places would lose stars if buses wouldn't get him home from a job if he left after midnight, because it meant I would need to pick him up or he would need a car. But they would earn stars for being close enough to bus or walk to!

        Ultimately, we pay a little more in rent to have an assigned parking space, and to avoid having an off-site storage unit, second car and related expenses. We pay a little extra for my partner to ride the bus to work every day rather than me driving him. But in doing so, I have saved us almost $300 a month in total costs, by avoiding all those things above AND because I don't drive very many miles so I get cheaper car insurance than I used to. Plus, the mister gets a little extra decompression time on the bus or bike, and I don't have to drive him to work if I'm not feeling up to it (his commute happens during when my body has for some reason declared nap time).

        By almost sheer luck, we also ended up half a block away from a coffee shop and a major bus line that has a stop right by our favorite bar, so if I do decide I want out of the house I have someplace I can walk to, and if we go to the bar I don't have the expense of a cab to get home. We are close enough to a grocery store that I can send the mister without a car for small purchases. This is all winning.

  6. Yes! My work commute is about the same distance and it is such a nice change from all the years of traffic and road-rage. There are definitely days that I don't love my walk (e.g. when I'm weighed down like a pack animal or trying to navigate icy sidewalks) but the freedom from my car is so worth it!

  7. I don't live close enough to work to walk (I bought a house in the suburbs, about 15miles from my work). But I do drive to the park and ride and bus to work. My bus commute has a transfer, and the one trip is only 1.5 miles from transfer point to my work. When it's nice out after work I do like to walk to the downtown stop, but I am not a big fan of walking alone to the stop at night/in the early morning, especially since there are enough creepy people out in the daylight. Perhaps when its lighter out again I'll make an effort to walk the extra mile every day, even in the rain, to get used to it.

    • General tip if you're bussing in the dark (early morning or evening): to make sure the bus driver sees you, turn the light on your phone as the bus approaches to indicate you are there.
      This is one of the tips the city bus drivers give here, since so many make their commute during dark hours.

  8. I totally get this. I walked to classes in undergrad and loved it. I would listen to my cd's (yes I had a discman in college, I'm that old) and process my day. I was an art major and sometimes I would get so into whatever painting I was planning in my head that I would wander the wrong direction on campus and wouldn't even notice 🙂 When I graduated college I moved to Seoul South Korea and didn't own a car. Seoul I think is very much like New York in that you get around by taxi, subway, bus, and walking. Very few native Korean's I knew actually owned a car. Walking in a busy city is a different experience but my husband and I loved it. When we bought our house in Portland we wanted to live in a walkable neighborhood and we found a great area in St. Johns that boasts a walk score of 89! From our house we can walk to a number of bars and restaurants, a grocery store, the post office, two movie theaters, a yoga studio, two parks, and tons of cute stores.

  9. I live in a small town, where our church, the kids' school, and many other needs are within walking distance. I absolutely love it. We walk the kids to school every morning and afternoon, and you are correct in that it's the perfect decompression time. There are no working opportunities here, but I just don't want to give up the cheaper rent, nice neighborhoods, and close locations.

  10. So Jealous.

    I live about 6 miles from work and I really really want to bike. I mean, it wouldn't take much longer to bike then it would to drive that distance.

    The trouble is that there is no shower at my office – so I would have to work stinky all day….and that's not really going to fly.

    Does anybody have *no shower solutions?*

    • My husband has had a bike commute for the last few years, without a good showering option, and these are his tricks:
      1) Take a leisurely pace while you bike ride. It's not a race to get to work, plan to take extra time, and avoid getting too sweaty.
      2) Bring a change of clothes (& keep makeup in your desk). Wear sporting gear for your ride, and then change into your work wear in the bathroom or your office at work.
      3) Deodorant/anti-antiperspirant and talc powder/baby powder. The deodorant will keep you from sweating in the first place, and the talc will help absorb sweat to keep you fresher.

    • Depending on the terrain, your six miles shouldn't be too bad. You might be surprised how non-sweaty you are. Taking it slow/remembering it is not a race definitely helps. When I biked to my last job, I just wore my work clothes for the day. (I worked with archaeologists, so there admittedly wasn't much of a dress code.) In summer, jersey-material skirts were my favorite for biking. I'd get to work, wash my face and do my hair. The Mr. MoneyMustache forums are a great place for bike commute tips – there's a strong contingent there.

      The other tip I can offer? Just go do your commute ride on a weekend day. You'll get an idea of the ride, what to look out for when there's (likely) less traffic, and you won't be in a rush. And you'll get the first ride out of the way. I find that anything is less scary once you've done it once!

      • I love Mr. MoneyMustache! Definitely lots of great tips for biking your commute (and lots of encouragement & motivation tactics!).
        And yeah, take your work environment into account. I'm an attorney, and most of us keep a separate emergency wardrobe at work. So changing clothes & doing makeup/hair at work is a totally normal thing, changing from biking clothes to work clothes would hardly go noticed (except maybe some jealous looks from people who wish they were able to do a bike commute too).

    • THIS would make for a great separate advice post for Home! I'm totally snagging this and all the awesome advice. Then you'll have a plethora of great suggestions!

    • I bike commute to university (admittedly less of a dress code than many workplaces), and I cannot recommend merino wool highly enough. It handles moisture well, so even if I sweat on my commute (which I do, pretty much regardless of the weather), I can actually keep wearing the same clothes once I arrive. Icebreaker and Smartwool both have some nice professional-looking clothing. It's not the cheapest stuff, but it's the only way I've found to bike in all weather and arrive looking and feeling presentable.

        • Yes, I did write that post! Last week (thanks to the polar vortex) we had a day of -25ºC, wind chill around -40ºC (which is also -40ºF, actually). There was a frost-bite warning — exposed skin could freeze in as little as 5 minutes. I have about a half-hour bike commute when there's snow on the roads (it slows me down…). I managed to do it, despite the weather, and I managed to completely avoid frostbite — I was actually overheated for most of the ride because I was wearing so much!

    • My partner is not a sweat-less guy by any means. He used to bike 13 miles to work (in the Portland winter no less, so, very wet, and not the fittest guy to start) and did not have issues with not being able to shower. (Another job was 10 miles and just crappy timing on buses so he would ride half the commute by bus and half by bike.)

      He started by taking a shower right before he left. Since stink is made by bacteria, being clean first helps a lot.

      He abused the crap out of his deodorant, and had a stick in his backpack for when he got there He also had hand sanitizer, in case he ever needed it, but he actually never did.

      He took his work clothes in his bag. This job involved a nice shirt and a tie, so making sure to roll the short loosely helped avoid wrinkles. This was not a job where he could keep his work clothes at work, though a previous job he could and that was pretty awesome. There, he would bring a fresh clean set today, and wear the set he brought yesterday that had a chance to hang out. Changing into work clothes also included socks and underwear.

      Shoes. Seriously. Have working shoes and biking shoes. Moisture is a big part of the stink factor.

      Towel! He had a washcloth and hand towel in his backpack, and would do a quick wipe/rinse/scrub thingy in the bathroom and reapply deodorant. Also two plastic grocery bags for wet items.

      Spare riding clothes. If it was looking like rain at all for his commute in, he had a full spare pair of commute clothes for the ride home, except shoes, which he just kind of suffered through being wet. But to be fair, he rarely commuted both ways entirely. If he rode to work, I picked him up in the car with the bike rack.

      Hydration and rest. He had a sports drink and a water bottle with him. He took breaks, though as time went on he needed them less often and they were shorter. He also timed his commute to have a half hour to 45 minutes to change, hydrate, and catch his breath once he got to work. For the 13 mile commute, he started out leaving with 2 hours to commute and a half hour to recoup, but within a couple months it was down to a 1 hour commute and only 15 minutes to recoup. Part of that I know was a route change (half mile less, and I think there was less of an incline on the new route). But part of it was just that as he got more used to it, he didn't need as much time to catch his breath and de-stinkify once he got there.

  11. I have always loved my walking commutes. I just started a new position that's a little too far to walk daily (5 miles each way). I'm not much of a bike rider, but I think I may take up a biking commute, and see if I can get the same benefits as a walking commute.
    My only concern is that my job occasionally requires me to drive to far away counties for client visits and professional meetings. I would have to be extremely organized with my schedule and plan to drive on those meeting days.

  12. This is awesome! I've done the walking commute thing since college…admittedly, it's largely due to my not having a license (that's a whole different story, and I may get one someday). But I absolutely agree with all the pluses mentioned. I was actually just thinking on my walk home today how beautiful an evening it is compared to what the weather's been like lately, and how nice it was to get to spend that extra time enjoying it. It's peaceful. 🙂

  13. I'm a cycle commuter – about 20 minutes of slow easy riding that is half through quiet university territory and half through a park. My commute is hands-down and consistently one of the best parts of my day.

    I love this line in your article: "And, as a historian, I feel like I am using the late nineteenth-century city I live in as it was designed — for pedestrians and slower traffic." I am not a historian, but I too love the feeling of being part of a return to a slower pace of travel and life. The city I live in is in the midst of an enormous, natural-disaster induced re-invention of itself which is including, among other things, a big push for cycling, and I love-love-love being a part of that new community.

    I also, of course, get a lot of friends and co-workers who do not get that I can own a car, but not want to use it. I explain that I usually only have to fill up my car once every 2 months. Given petrol prices here, that's usually enough to explain things. But the truth is, I mainly bike for happiness, as described by the totally awesome Bikeyface: http://bikeyface.com/2013/09/25/not-athletic/

    • This is not really related to the original topic, but you may want to fill your car more frequently. Petrol (gasoline) deteriorates significantly after 1 month, and destabilizes, leading to fuel line problems in machines.
      Personally, if I used a full tank every 2 months, I would keep the tank around 3/4 and put in gas as I used it more frequently, so I am adding fresh petrol every 3-4 weeks.

      • There are also additives you can put in your tank that prevent the breakdown. My dad gets something at the local auto-parts store for the gas can he keeps in the garage for the lawn mower etc.

  14. My husband and I don't have a car, and we get around primarily by bicycle. We bought winter bikes this year, and I'm so happy to be biking through the winter instead of taking the bus — while I thoroughly approve of public transportation, my mental health is much better if I'm getting the fresh air and exercise, not to mention the time to think, provided by cycling. I'm currently a part-time student, working from home the rest of the time, so I only commute two days a week (well, plus church), but it's great to actually have something that forces me to get off my lazy ass and do something physical.

  15. I supply teach, and while I could take a bus that drops me off right at my usual school's door, I prefer to take a bus to the local transit station and then walk the rest of the way. This helps wake me up and gets my blood pumping-and often gives me the chance to mentally prepare for whatever challenges my students are going to throw at me over the course of the day.

  16. I'm more of a bike commuter, myself, but walking would be my second choice. Unfortunately, I can't do either. I have to bring two small children to my MIL's for baby sitting before work. But sometimes I'll park my car nearby and bike the rest of the way in. 🙂

    • Have you considered a bike trailer? They come in two-seater varieties… I used to ride around in one of those when I was a small child! (Of course, this doesn't work for children younger than about 6 months, but that's a relatively short phase…).

      • I do take my kids in a trailer for short distances, but my MIL's house is a good 10 miles away and between dropping my oldest off at school at 7:35 and when I have to be at work at 8:30 I just don't have enough time to bike that far. Also, I'm not quite that buff yet. But one day I hope to be!

  17. I cannot agree with this enough! As a Midwesterner who has walked or biked to work for the last 6.5 years (okay sometimes I take the bus), people look at me like I have three heads. But getting my alone time, my outside time, my exercise time, my in-tune-with-the-city time and a moving meditation all at once with no car payment, lower insurance, no gas, maintenance, parking or gym fees? Yes please! Rock on.

  18. I travel a lot for work and my favorite gigs are always the ones in which I get to walk to work. I have gotten to know so many cities on a level of intimacy that would not have been possible by car. We are moving to a new city next month and I cannot WAIT to ditch my car!

  19. I used to walk everywhere in uni and I loved it. Then we moved, and I had the choice of a two minute easy drive or a half hour walk to work, and because I'm lazy, I drove most of the time. Now we have moved again, back to the city, and my driving commute is much more annoying and it's difficult to park. I still have to drive a lot because I do on call shifts where I have to travel between sites, but in a few weeks I'm changing jobs, and I will be based in one site, a perfect 1.5 miles away. I am very very excited to walk all the time. I feel like I will be much fitter and happier and I won't have to drive the damn car all the time!

  20. I *love* that I can walk to work. It is such a privilege. I love that it's free, it's exercise, I see lovely trees (and cows!) every day. Work is a mile away, so that's two miles minimum every day! Also, I swear it's less stressful than a car or public transport. No worries about traffic, late buses, etc… my walk always basically takes the same amount of time, and I factor it in.

    One question though – although I love walking, I'm starting to suspect that modern shoes are not made to put up with this kind of treatment! Two miles day-in-day-out takes its toll really quickly, and I always seem to leave it too late for repairs. Even my big clumpy Doc Martens are wearing down fast. Anyone have any clever life hacks for this problem?

  21. I live in a big big big city and can't afford to live close enough to walk to work; but I have a 15 minute walk to catch my train into town and then a 20 minute walk from the station to work. It's great – but yes, I do wear down my shoe heels something fierce!
    I used to live in one of the world's most cycle-friendly cities, and we all cycled everywhere – nobody ever thought about showering or changing clothes, we used pretty granny bikes and took out rime. You don't have to be a lycra-clad urban warrior type to have a cycle commute.

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