It’s Saturday morning, and people are arriving, greeting each other with smiles and hugs. Some are making their way to the Parque de la Alemán’s benches to change from shoes into roller skates. Others are donning hats and stretching, preparing their bodies for activity.
The faces around the park vary in age, gender, and shades of brown. Their stories are just as varied. They are coming together for the purposes of wellness and community.
Walking in a group can have huge benefits for both social and physical health, especially when you bring together people of all ages.
After living as a hermit for a good portion of the pandemic, Jessica Johnson started craving connection in a way that was safe for everyone. The 30-something former athlete posted an invitation to join her at a local park to walk, skate, play games, etc.
Marci Halili Akoma, who had already started meeting with a small group to walk, asked Jessica if they could join her. Since February 2021, their group of multi-generational walkers and skaters have been meeting at a local park as a means of promoting wellness and community among Black expatriates and immigrants living in and around Mérida.
“It’s something I’ve done everywhere we’ve been,” Marci shares. “I was an early member of GirlTrek and was just inspired by the idea of daily walking for health and wellness while encouraging other people to walk with groups.”
Marci has started or been a part of walking groups in Los Angeles, Vietnam, and Thailand. She started a group in Mérida when she arrived, but participation by others wasn’t consistent until she and Jessica combined efforts and chose a local park as their meeting place.
“I didn’t pick up my skates for a while. It wasn’t until I came here that I thought about skating for fun and health,” says Jessica, a former skater with the Texas Roller Girls. After a car accident in 2018, the grueling pace of her professional skating career became hard and painful. Initially, the pandemic meant relief because she could pause; then, she realized it was time to stop skating competitively.
“It was kind of this healing process of rediscovering and reinvigorating my love for skating,” Jessica says.
She now helps others discover that joy. The only equipment needed are skates and pads. Like walking, you can do it almost anywhere.
“For me, walking really elevates my mood … it’s a way to keep my heart healthy and my joints limber … and it’s free,” says Marci.
There’s a place for every activity level in the group. Some choose to stroll. Others add in some jogging or speed walking. Skaters can be seen improvising routines or sharing new skills. The sounds of music and laughter mingle with the sounds of the neighborhood around the park, just north of the Centro Histórico.
“It’s not so much for the exercise component,” Marci chuckles. “Most of us are keeping up with one another and strolling and chatting.”
For people over 40, walking is a great activity because it is low-impact and easy on the joints. It can help to improve balance and coordination, strengthen muscles and bones, and reduce stress and anxiety. Walking can also improve cognitive function and help to reduce age-related memory loss.
Aside from the many health benefits of walking and skating, those who venture out have made connections and shared vital information about life in Mérida. For adults living abroad, maintaining social connections can be particularly difficult. Whether due to language barriers, cultural differences, or the sense of isolation one can feel in a new place, it can be difficult to form new relationships and maintain existing ones.
“In some ways, it has become the unofficial welcoming committee,” says Jessica. The connections and questions feel less transactional than online within the Facebook groups. People exchange stories and information and often build relationships.
“People find their tribe,” Marci adds. “A couple of women went on a trip to Mexico City together. One young lady in her 20s said she was looking for aunties.”
Social connections are essential for the well-being of people of all ages, whether they be an adult, young adult, or even a child. Social connections help form meaningful relationships with peers, family, and community that benefit our mental and emotional health. Studies have shown that those who are socially connected are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, as well as being more resilient in the face of stressful life events.
“I think moving to a foreign country reminds you of the importance of unity,” Jessica says. “When you get here, and you need to figure out how to get water delivered to your house, suddenly you realize how vital community is to help you meet your needs, helping you figure things out. It has been a reminder of let’s meet each other, look each other in the eye and think about ways we can contribute to each other’s lives.”