The surprising benefits of walking
I grew up in Finland always surrounded by nature. My parents were keen to get us children out into ‘fresh air’ so we spent most of our free time (even when it rained) playing outside and in the forest close by. Apart from my parents gaining some valuable 'breathing space', we children also reaped the rewards of playing outside in nature. Research suggests that walking outside in nature has a huge beneficial effects on how we survive the stresses and trials of work, education and relationships (so life in general), it ‘restores’ the brain’s health and makes us more creative, not forgetting the physical benefits it brings with it.
In Japan the power of the outdoors has also been known for centuries despite any scientific evidence. The Japanese call going walking in the forest shinrin-yoku meaning ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘forest bathing’. I have always been very close to nature, so when I moved to London what dictated my choice of habitat was the proximity to nature. I currently live a short walking distance from Richmond Park. This is my escape, my exercise ground and the place I do my daily afternoon walk.
Better immune system
There is a general recommendation of 10,000 steps per day for walking to reap the rewards on your immune system. If you are wondering how much this is; this is on average of 5miles or 8.04672 km per day. So you can imagine this amount of walking a day is bound to have some benefits. However walking just 30 minutes a day, five days a week, according to 'Harvard’s School of Public Health' helps the body function better through this light whole body workout. Walking (and exercise in general) is one component of creating that healthy immune system, helping you from catching every flu that goes around.
Lowers blood pressure
Walking lowers your blood pressure, the risk of heart disease and blood clots. After a meal your blood sugar levels and glucose levels go up, which is normal, however for those suffering from high blood pressure or diabetes (glucose) this can be a problem. A brisk 30 minute walk, healthyfoodhouse.com writes, especially after a meal, lowers that blood pressure and keeps glucose levels under control in all of us.
Lubricates the joints
Walking keeps the joints lubricated and interestingly helps with back pain too. “Exercise is definitely helpful in back pain. It’s very important to keep as gently active as possible.” Daniel Steffens from the University of Sydney states. And those who suffer from arthritis are encouraged to walk too as this is the most gentile form of exercise. So if you have not been exercising for a while or have back pain walking can be a great way to get back into moving the body and thus preventing reoccurring health problems.
It lets your cells ‘see’
I believe we are not born to sit in front of computers all day. Our ancestors were hunter gatherer roaming this earth, moving from place to place. I believe this is still in our genes. One of the reasons we get depressed and blue is when we do not use our body and regenerate our minds in nature. In the ‘Super Brain’ - Deepak Chopra and Professor of Neurology at Harvard - Rudolfe E Tanzi write about billions of cells ‘seeing’ the outside world through the movement of our body…I find this a fascinating way of describing it. The brain transmits chemicals to the body when exercising or walking and this way enabling our cells a sense of contact and stimulation from the outside world. I love it!
Research has shown that walking those 10,000 steps a day has a great positive effect on our physical health but when we combine the walking with nature the results are even more significant on your mind. Just 30 minutes of walking in nature will recharge your brain’s batteries and enable you to be more focussed and creative. Walking improves your memory and cognitive control and even improves academic performance (the US Institute of Medicine’s). Already Aristotle famously believed in taking his students for walks when teaching them enabled them to focus better. Our minds get tired too and need recharging David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah believes, that is why hiking and immersing ourselves in nature are important components to include in our balanced lives.
If the day has been stressful a walk after work can be a godsend as it helps you reduce your stress levels, distance yourself from the hassles and bring your mind to a relaxed state to enable a good night sleep. The National Sleep Foundation writes that research conducted by Brad Cardinal, Professor of exercise science at Oregon State confirms that those who exercise more than the 150 minutes a week also sleep better. And in return if we are able to have a good night sleep, where the body regenerates itself, we are more likely to feel more alert in the day and have more energy to keep doing our walks.
Tool to reduce stress
These days there is ample evidence to say that stress really is a choice says Professor John Perry from Southampton University. Regular walking therefore is a tool to lower that blood pressure, increase the endorphins in your blood stream that lifts the mood. Regular walking (and any type of exercise) enables you to take on the trials at work, deal with difficult people and circumstances in a completely different way. Professors at Harvard Medical School show that exercise relaxes and calms the mind and counters depression and stress. Clinical trials shown exercise can even treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. What happens is that exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, stimulates the production of endorphins, our natural painkillers and mood elevators. It is like a buffer helping to withstand the trials of life. And when we are able to keep to our walking routines it gives us the feeling of achievement which in return boosts our confidence.
It is very therapeutic to be in nature. Just watching the beauty of it all makes our hearts sing. Walking, especially in nature, let's your brain recharge itself from the hustle and bustle of the city by immersing into the soothing sounds of nature and reflective practise that comes with walking in nature. David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah who specialises in attention, is a firm believer in the power of nature on our mind, body and soul. But we must make the time to be consciously aware of being in nature and not get side-tracked with thinking of all the things that still need doing when we get back from our walk. Focussing on seeing what is happening ‘now’ in front of our eyes lets our brains, like in meditation, purely focussing on the ‘now’ generating a meditative effect. Therefore if you find sitting still hard when meditating try walking in nature. It serves a similar purpose.
So if you want to increase your daily walking and reap the benefits of the practise see the small list below of things you can do to increase your walking. Start small even a five minute walk around the block is great! Weaving the walking into your daily routine can also help you reach the five km target. Think about what days are you free in the evenings or in the day to go for a walk or when you could swap your transport for your feet.
Try these to get closer to the five miles walking a day and reap the rewards on your mind, body and soul:
- take a walk with your friend, partner, children
- pick up the kids from school, gym, hobbies without a car
- walk the dog
- walk into town
- use the stairs instead of the elevator
- take out the rubbish
- park your car further away when shopping
- walk to do your food shop
- get up to change the channel
- window shop
- go for a hike down your favourite part of town
- plan a walking meeting
- walk to the station in the morning
- get off a stop earlier and walk
- walk over to visit a neighbour.
What will you do differently from now on to get more walking under your belt? Let me know I would love to find out!