5 October 2022

Canberra walking group gets on the front foot of men's mental health

| Dione David
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group of men assembling on the footpath

WALK-W-ME invites men of all ages take to the lakeside every Sunday to walk, talk and create a safe space to improve mental health awareness. Photo: Zak Pino.

Sometimes the most obvious solution is the best one.

It’s why walking became the answer for Zak Pino at a dark time in his life.

Founder of WALK-W-ME, Zac invites men of all ages to take to the lakeside at 9:30 am every Sunday to walk, talk and create a safe space to improve mental health awareness.

He says WALK-W-ME is a reflection on 2020 when, like many, he found himself struggling under the pall of lockdown.

“There was such a sense of uncertainty at that time,” he says.

“At the start of the year, I was diagnosed with anxiety. It turns out like many people, I had been confusing it with run-of-the-mill nervousness around everything that was happening. I thought anxiety and stress were the same; they’re not.

“I am not an athletic person. But it was clear I needed a distraction from just binging television and being stuck in the house with my thoughts.”

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Walking is known to unlock creativity, reset productivity, relieve stress and diminish anxiety. It’s also one of the few forms of physical activity that not only allows but begs for social interaction.

“During the time in lockdown when we were allowed to see one other person from another household, people would ask me to go on walks and catch up. I started going for walks with a different person each day; I’d ask them how they were dealing with it all, initially just to compare it to my own insights.

“I discovered many of my mates were experiencing the same thing.”

When restrictions lifted, Zak proposed a time and about 15 of his mates started to walk by the lake regularly. As others in the same boat started hearing about it, numbers grew. Now, on busy days, WALK-W-ME attracts upwards of 30 walkers.

Zak attributes the appeal to one of those rare environments that doesn’t inhibit men with societal constructs.

“Guys – we’re pretty competitive by nature,” he says.

“Going for a run or to the gym, you’re constantly comparing yourself. Sometimes that’s destructive because it doesn’t lead to the best mindset.

“Walking is such a neutral state – the aim is rarely to be the fastest walker. You find yourself starting to drivel on about whatever and then, you start opening up without realising it.”

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As sobering as it was to find out how many of his mates were struggling in the same ways, it wasn’t entirely surprising given the sobering statistics around male mental health.

Suicide attributed to more than double the number of deaths than last year’s road toll. About 75 per cent were male, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics national data.

WALK-W-ME aims to create an environment where men can thrive with each other’s support and perhaps turn this tide.

“It’s an easy way to connect with cool new people or reconnect with people you already know, and forces you to exercise – two birds, one stone,” Zak says.

“We talk about anything and everything – cars, family issues, how to save money, breakups… there are a lot of older guys there, too, who have been through stuff and can share insights. Some guys have even scored jobs through the people they’ve met at WALK-W-ME.

“You get perspectives outside the emotional bubble you’re in when you’re stressed, anxious or nervous.”

WALK-W-ME founder Zak Pino

WALK-W-ME founder Zak Pino. Photo: WALK-W-ME.

Zak says not knowing other participants might hold some back from participating in initiatives such as WALK-W-ME.

“I can’t criticise – I’m much the same,” he says.

“I’m apprehensive about joining something new if I don’t know anyone. It’s daunting to walk up to a bunch of guys you’ve never seen before and say ‘hey are you here for the walk?’.

“The fact is half these guys have just rolled out of bed and into the clothes they’re walking in – there’s no judgement here. Everyone talks to everyone, some of the guys go out for coffee or breakfast after.

“It’s hard to convey to newcomers that we don’t bite, so at the end of the day I’m hoping individuals will bite the bullet, come along and see for themselves.”

Visit the WALK-W-ME Facebook page for details.

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