This week I'm away at a running holiday so I'm sharing a guest blog post by fellow Adventure Queen Julia Gillick of ipse wilderness. So put the kettle on, sit back and relax. Here are Three Ways Walking is Good for Mental Health...
I love walking. It is my daily routine, my weekend hobby and my holiday activity of choice. It’s what I do for work, pleasure and fitness. It’s why I live where I do, why I belong to the groups I have chosen, and why I got a dog.
But why is walking so good for our mental health? The science is flooding in on this, but here are my top three reasons:
The three-brain model:
Walking is easy, rhythmic movement. It’s the type of movement our bodies were most specifically designed for, and it comes naturally to almost all of us. As such it resides in the instinctive part of our nature, under the uncomplicated control of the ‘lizard brain’. We can adjust our pace, alter our breathing, add layers and take on water as we stroll without recourse to any more sophisticated realms of our psyche.
The rhythm of walking is ideal for open, free-wheeling, creative talking and thinking. If alone, walking is a wonderful medium for planning, prioritising and day-dreaming. If alongside a friend, a good walk is the best catalyst for easy yet meaningful conversation. Because of the wide views, open skies and passing scenery, walking invites meandering dialogue. Topics can be raised, looped and dropped in a rhythm which is not always appropriate in a sedentary setting. Interruptions, asides and remarks are welcomed, instead of being considered rude. A side-by-side position frees us from the social constraints of precise turn-taking and eye contact, and the view forward is shared, the going necessarily consensual. All this means that our ‘monkey brain’ is very happy; chattering, arranging, socialising in a free and un-structured way.
Which leaves our limbic system, the ‘mammal brain’ free to just be, and feel. Tuning in to the pace of steps, pulse and breathing brings us into a mindful space. Moving at a naturally measured pace encourages us to take notice of our environment. Seeing beauty around us encourages us to see ourselves as part of nature, and to find a sense of belonging. Walking opens up the access to our emotions like nothing else. Add to this the physical movement which encourages endorphins to flow, and the company of a like-minded pal or one’s own free-wheeling mind, and it is clear to me why walking in nature is being proven to be good for mental health.
Lessons from nature:
Ok, I lied at the beginning. I don’t love walking; I love walking in nature. I hate walking in the city, and I avoid it wherever possible. To be honest, I don’t really consider city walking and nature walking to be the same activity. They’re as alike to me as filling in a spreadsheet and painting a picture. The former is simple a means of getting from A to B and it needs to be done as quickly as possible. The latter is a joy which is good to extend as much as possible and is as much about the journey as the destination. So when I talk about walking, I mean walking in nature. Now that doesn’t have to be an untouched wilderness; it could be a garden, an urban park, a beach or a mountain range. But what is crucial for me is that aspects of nature are there as metaphors; ways to see myself in reflection, ways to understand humanity through the lens of the wild.
For example, the sea has always had for me an honest challenge about it. It is utterly relentless and dispassionate, for all its roaring and crashing. It is active and powerful but totally disinterested. The sea reminds me with every wave that it really isn’t about me. It’s not nasty, or angry; it doesn’t mean to wet me, knock me off my feet or drown me. It’s just doing it, leaving me free to do me. And if I want to get in it, which I pretty much always do, then I’d better be up to the task and ready to meet it as it is, cos it doesn’t give a damn about me. Although this might sound frightening, I absolutely love it. The sea is like a big autistic giant, or an over-eager puppy who doesn’t know its own strength; not an ounce of malice about it, just refreshing, confident and hella busy. And when I enter the sea and swim, I never feel anything other than un-fettered joy, because I know the sea is big and bold enough to meet and hold me, and it doesn’t ask anything from me other than that I know myself well enough to take what it throws at me. My relationship with the sea is one of fierce honest equality, and it reminds me that this is how I want to show up in the world too; big, bold and honest.
Other elements of nature have lessons to teach us too: plants which strive incessantly for the light; trees which share resources and protect each other; animals which conserve energy and live by seasonal rhythms. I think walking in nature, seeing these habits enacted around us, is a very effective way of imbibing these lessons and turning them to our emotional and psychological advantage.
Metaphor and movement:
That life is a journey is a cliché, a metaphor so over-used it’s become almost dormant. Since we see time in a linear way, we have constructed our reality around the idea that life is a movement from a location at one end, to an unspecified location at the, hopefully distant, other. But the way that we speak about our reality determines, at least in part, how we think about it. The metaphors we use create the emotional landscape that we inhabit.
Going for a walk to mull on a problem or talk through a difficulty is a common solution because ‘processing’ is an active linear movement; by ‘taking steps’ we are trying to solve our difficulties, and ‘moving through’ a problem is how we overcome it. Pairing thinking with movement comes as second nature to us, and we often choose to walk our way through a tricky time because of the vibrancy of the journey metaphor; we are being active, we are reaching a solution, we are moving forwards. The physical enaction of the metaphor can unlock a solution, even whilst our monkey brain is muddling through the minefield. Hence how often we find the answer waiting for us on the doorstep when we get home!
The metaphors we use to talk about our emotions are often the clue as to how to come to terms with them. Psychoanalysts will often suggest their clients physically act out the metaphors with which they are describing their feelings. Feel like you’re facing an uphill struggle? Well let’s go out and walk up a hill! Feeling mired in confusion? How about going for a stomp through the mud! Trapped between a rock and a hard place? Welcome to the bouldering wall! These may seem like cheesy gimmicks but trying out the reality of the words one is using to describe one’s situation can unlock powerful insights. Even if we’re not at the stage of psychoanalysis, stopping to smell the daisies, taking a leaf from nature’s book and keeping the wind at your back are all useful remedies for approaching life’s challenges. And if in doubt just go for a walk; you never know the good it might do you, mentally, physically and emotionally!
Julia Gillick is the founder of ipse wilderness; a wilderness therapy organisation which facilitates themed walking-talking journeys in different UK locations, with the aim of enhancing mental well-being by using nature as a mirror.