click to enlarge Author Lana Shovlin uses the Map My Walk app to track her distance and time.
Author Lana Shovlin uses the Map My Walk app to track her distance and time.

I recently read a fascinating article in The Wall Street Journal about how rituals have the power to turn periods of isolation into opportunities for self-growth. The author, William James, a well-known American philosopher and psychologist, also happened to be his wife's primary caretaker throughout her 10-year struggle with Alzheimer's disease. While caring for her, he wisely observed that people are a collection of their daily habits, and that as long as we work hard not to lose our ability to have something to look forward to, we are able to cultivate joy and hope in times of deep fear and uncertainty.

After reading his article, it was glaringly obvious that I had not been using this time sheltering-in-place in a way that would have made William James proud. For weeks, I felt like I was stuck in the movie Groundhog Day, and my husband and I often joked that we had no idea what day it was. Even worse, I had an epiphany one evening when my daughter asked me what I would say when my future grandchildren wanted to know how it felt to live through the Great Coronavirus Pandemic. Did I really want to tell them it was a blur of Cherry Garcia ice cream and episodes of Tiger King? Or did I want to be able to say that I used this time to become a healthier, happier, smarter person?

The morning after reading James' article, I made a promise to myself that each day I would attempt to do something good for my body, mind and soul. As an avid daily walker, I decided that I would push myself a little harder and start a running program. It was challenging at first, especially since my knees like to remind me that I'm 41, but I persevered and am now running an average of four miles, three times a week.

On the days that I don't run, I still prioritize my daily walk, and for the first time in years I can fit into the jeans that I wore prior to having three children. That's not the best part, though. Many studies have linked daily outdoor walking with the ability to reduce anxiety and feelings of social withdrawal, while simultaneously boosting your self-esteem and increasing immune responses. These side effects are extremely beneficial during periods where many of us are concerned with health and living in some form of self-isolation.

Americans customarily wait until the new year to begin new habits, but as autumn quickly approaches, I can't think of a better time to lace up your sneakers and hit the pavement. There's nothing more motivating than the gorgeous foliage and crisp, refreshing air. 

Another habit that I've committed to is learning something new every single day. One easy way that I've been accomplishing that task is by switching out music for podcasts. Whether I'm driving in the car or walking around the park, you can bet that I'm working double-time in exercising both my body and my mind. No matter what interests you, there is certainly an engaging podcast that fits the bill, but be sure to listen to something outside of your normal realm, too. Listen to someone who may not share the same beliefs as you, but who's an expert in their field, nonetheless. Our willingness to consider someone else's point of view also plays a critical role in our ability to expand our capacity to think creatively and get along well with others. 

Over the past few months, we've all become victims of stress eating, too much screen time and way too many Zoom meetings in sweatpants. If you're wondering what your life would be like if you just made a few small changes, it's time to take that first step. I look forward to seeing you along the way.

Lana Shovlin is a freelance writer who lives in Springfield. She recently taught herself the phonetic alphabet, which will be a great party trick when we're allowed to have parties again.

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