Walking the path back to health

One of my favorite things to do is to take a walk in nature. There is something about moving through a forest, breathing the fresh air and listening to the sound of birds and trees. By focusing on the outside environment, our senses start to awaken. We notice a beautiful flower by the side of the path, the fresh morning air, or the twisted shape of the trunk of a tree, bending like the torso of a dancer.

These days, on my morning walks, I have been admiring the beautiful flowers of almond trees, which have just bloomed all around the Collserola mountain, right next to Barcelona. The almond tree is one of the earliest to bloom, usually around february. They act as a kind of prelude of spring.

Walking in nature is an excellent and simple way of giving to yourself. It is an exercise with great health benefits, although it is usually underestimated. In the past decades, running has probably become the most popular form of aerobic exercise. Because it seems intense and rewarding, usually people decide to run instead of taking walks. There is also the wide spread idea in fitness of “no pain, no gain”. This is true for athletic performance but not necessarily for overall health and longevity. Gentler practices such as gardening, Tai Chi and Qi Gong have proven beneficial for people’s health all around the world, as is the case with walking.

In the book “Taming the tiger within: meditations on transforming difficult emotions”, the Zen monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh recommends walks in nature, practicing awareness of our breathing and body as a great way of dealing with anger. His whole life he taught a simple walking meditation to reconnect with one’s inner peace and joy.

More and more people who are completely burned out from work and stress are discovering how beneficial nature walks are for the mind. The recent book by Florence Williams “The nature Fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier and more creative” has inspired many people to take up the trails into forests and mountains once again. Walking in nature not only allows us to reconnect back with ourselves, it also gives our overtaxed nervous systems a rest from phones, the internet and social media. 

For a lot of people, it seems very clear that walking and nature are an excellent combination for health. But, what exactly are the physical and mental benefits of walking? Let’s dive in.

1. Walking improves heart health and circulation

Walking is a kind of cardiovascular activity that increases the heart rate and improves blood flow. There’s plenty of evidence that walkers have healthy hearts. A group of researchers did an analysis of 32 randomized controlled trials and arrived at the conclusion that walking increases the aerobic capacity of the heart, lowers blood pressure and reduces body fat.  Look up the study here

The traditional idea is that to have a healthy heart you need to do some kind of high-intensity aerobic exercise, like running and cycling. However, research has shown that walking is also effective. A large study that compared runners and walkers for 6 years, found that when using the same mount of energy, both kinds of exercise were similarly beneficial in lowering high blood pressure and high cholesterol, as well as reducing the risk of diabetes. Walking for exercise should be done at a bit of a faster pace than usual. 

There is also evidence that walking can greatly reduce the risk of stroke. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that women who walk at least 30 minutes everyday can reduce the risk of stroke by 20%, and by 40% when they walk faster.

If you would like to learn more about the physical benefits of walking for exercise the Harvard School of Public Health has a very comprehensive article.


2. Walking can help you live longer

There are areas of the planet in which people live much longer than usual. They also reach old age with admirable health and vitality. These areas are called Blue Zones, and they have been studied in recent years to understand more about longevity. They include, among others, the islands of Okinawa and the island of Sardinia, in the Mediterranean sea. 

Dan Buettner is one of the main speakers and writers who is fascinated by how people live in the blue zones. One of the main things he found is that people integrate movement and moderate exercise everyday. They walk almost everywhere, many garden, and they don’t have a lot of machines for housework. According to Buettner the secret these communities have is a constellation of small things, but daily moderate exercise that is integrated with daily life is one of the keys. 

3. Walking improves mental health

There is growing research that walking can improve mental health. Psychologist Robert Thayer has focused his research on human moods and the role they play in everyday life. He says going out for a short 10 minute walk at a brisk pace is a great way of navigating our daily moods. It can quickly change our feeling of being tense and tired to feeling calmer and more energetic. 

There is also growing evidence that “nature walks” have a deep and positive effect on metal health. A Japanese study from 2018 showed that walking through forests as opposed to walking in cities improved mood and vigor, as well as reduced depression, anxiety, tension and anger. In Japan there are close to 48 ” forest therapy” trails, paths woven into forests where people can practice Shinrin-Yoku, the art of “forest bathing”. The Japanese government has spent close to $4 million in in forest-bathing research since 2003. 

In a Stanford study, people who walked 90 minutes in nature as opposed to an urban area showed decreased activity in a region of the brain which plays a role in depression. Specifically, the study found positive changes in the area of the prefrontal cortex associated with rumination and repetitive negative thinking.

4. Free flowing creativity

Countless writers, artists and thinkers have said walks are one of the best things for unlocking creativity. What’s more, many used walks as a way to spark inspiration and ideas. Beethoven took long walks through the forests near Vienna with a pencil and some sheets of paper. Nikola Tesla walked daily in a city park and claimed many of his ideas formed during those walks. 

A study from 2014 by Stanford University looked into the connection between walking and creativity. They gave 176 students problems that are designed to gauge creativity. They compared how the students did when walking on a treadmill, sitting indoors, walking outdoors and being pushed on a wheelchair outdoors. What they found was that walking greatly improved the students creativity and helped them do better on the problems they were given. 

However, they were surprised by the fact that being outdoors or indoors didn’t seem to matter much. Those students who had worked on the problems while walking on a treadmill and staring at a blank wall also produced strong results. Perhaps the study indicates that walking and creativity are somehow hard-wired in our brains. 

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