The stress relief (and added stress) of outdoor activity

At the forefront of our minds with this pandemic has been protecting our mental and physical health.
Michael Johnson
Photo by Larry Chua/Photo courtesy of Michael Johnson
Michael Johnson (left) and his family go on walks and bike rides multiple times a week. Pictured right (left to right) Micayla, Micaiya and son Michael Johnson Jr.

At the forefront of our minds with this pandemic has been protecting our mental and physical health. Michael Johnson, who was devoted to a weight loss journey along with his family for months before COVID-19 hit, has enacted weekly walks and bike rides as a way to stay active during quarantine. His family of five also eats a whole-food, plant-based diet. “We just want to be in good shape,” says Johnson, who is president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County. “A disproportionate number of African American people are dying from [COVID-19] because of underlying issues. So now more than ever we’re trying to watch what we eat and just trying to make sure that we’re moving and exercising to try to stay healthy.”

Johnson and his wife log at least 10,000 steps a day and bike multiple times a week with their kids, ages 6, 11 and 16. The family has lost 220 pounds in the last nine months. Johnson himself has shed 100 pounds. “It’s been a game changer,” Johnson says. “I look at my wife — she looks like she did when we got married.”

While exercise is meant to relieve stress, Johnson and his family face the added stress of not always feeling safe when walking or biking outside because they’re black. A devastating reminder of that reality was the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old African American man who was jogging in a Georgia neighborhood when he was pursued and fatally shot on Feb. 23.

Michael Johnson family

Photo courtesy of Michael Johnson

Left to right: Johnson, daughter Micaiya, wife Toya and daughter Micayla.

“[My 16-year-old son and I] were riding our bikes the other day … and both of us had on all black and our faces were covered up,” Johnson recalls. “It crossed my mind then: ‘How safe is it for us to really be out here riding our bikes? Two black men out with face masks on.’ I’m very, very conscious to make sure that when I’m riding with my son, the two of us, that we’re riding on main roads and that we take safety precautions to make sure we don’t find ourselves in a situation like that. But it’s real.”

Johnson, who has ties to Brunswick, Georgia — where the Arbery family is from — was part of a webinar town hall conversation in mid-May that brought together black teens from Madison and Brunswick to lift up the voices of young people, particularly African American kids. “The voices of kids from Brunswick and the kids from Madison, they share the same anxiety and the same kinds of fears,” Johnson says.

Johnson has continued to host town halls meetings and organize efforts to amplify black voices in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

Click here to read more stories about how we coped with stress during coronavirus.