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. 

Simple ideas for improving mental health

Today there a plenty of expensive supplements, products and trends to improve mental health, but what simple, free and effective things can we do?

Any kind of mental health issue can be complex and usually it requires that we tackle it from a variety of angles. However, sometimes the simplest things are very powerful and beneficial for our health.

These tips are easy to implement, which doesn’t mean they will change you in a day. They require a bit of patience and perseverance for them to work. It’s as if you were introducing these subtle but deep changes in your body, and overtime, the benefits add up. These tips will help almost anybody who is willing to work on their well-being. 

Drink your food, chew your water

For years I was told by people “You eat so fast!”, or “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone eat that fast!”. I used to gulp my food down like some kind of prehistoric bird. Chew you food until it melts away in your mouth. The enzymes in your saliva will start breaking down food and your digestive system will have a much easier time absorbing the nutrients that will be carried to the cells in your body.

When you chew your food slowly, your body relaxes, and when you relax your parasympathetic nervous system turns on, which among other things, takes care of digestion.

The nervous system in your body is divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic nervous system is your “fight or flight” response, when it gets activated it drives blood to the extremities so you can put up a good fight or run really fast. It doesn’t really care about digestion at all, its purpose is to keep you alive in a dangerous situation. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system takes care of the rest and repair of the body. It slows down the heart rate and increases digestion.

The problem when we are constantly anxious or stressed is that we sit at the table to eat and we are not relaxed, so our stomach is not “turning on” and the digestive juices are not flowing properly.

Chewing your food is one of the simplest things you can do to improve digestion, which is so essential that an improvement there will have an effect on overall health.

Spend time in nature

This one might seem plain common sense to you, and if it doesn’t, there is growing scientific research that a walk in nature can do wonders for your body and mind. It relaxes you, you produce some vitamin D thanks to the sun, intake much needed fresh air, and walking is a very healthy form of exercise. Think about when you were a kid, didn’t you love running around in the green grass, or playing hide and seek in a forest with your friends? When we are children we intuitively love playing in nature.

One example of the influence of nature on the brain is the effect it has on children with ADHD. A 2004 study by Frances E. Kuo, an associate professor at the university of Illinois, found out playing and doing activities in nature helps reduce the symptoms of kids with ADHD. Her study tracked 452 kids from ages 5 to 18 across different income and geographical backgrounds, as well as across severity of diagnosis.

A much wider study with adults from 2020, conducted by Matthew White of the European Center for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, found out that people who spent 2 hours a week in green spaces (parks or natural environments) were more likely to enjoy good health and psychological well-being than those who don’t. This study tracked 20.000 people and it was done across different occupations, ethnic groups, income backgrounds and health conditions.

Photo Credit: Harry GillenUnsplash

Try to make it a habit to spend time in natural environments almost everyday. Do whatever you can, if you can only spend 15 minutes at a city park, then that’s better than nothing. If near your house there is a small hill or mountain, use it as a way of getting fresh and clean air, in addition to a bit of exercise. If you start including nature as part of your routine, you will notice the benefits pretty soon.

Natural Breathing

We need to breathe to live, right? It’s probably the most important activity of our body but we pay little attention to it. Most people breathe using the muscles in their chest and shoulders. This is actually not a very effective way to breathe.

The way the natural breath works is from the diaphragm. The diaphragm expands slightly making the belly rise. The air comes in filling the lower part of the lungs first and then the rest. According to the Vietnamese Zen monk Thic Nhat Hanh, in ancient times, people spoke of the breath starting at the navel and finishing at the nostrils.

To see what kind of breather you are put a hand on your chest and the other one on your belly or close below the diaphragm. The diaphragm is right under your rib cage, it is actually connected to the bottom of your lungs. Now breathe naturally. What part of your body moves more? Does your chest move or does your belly move? Don’t try to force it, just breathe naturally to see what muscles you are using. If you use the chest and shoulders, you could improve the way you breath.

The reason why this breathing is so good for your mental health is that it relaxes the whole body and nervous system. It creates a kind of wave and subtle movement in your body massaging your internal organs. If you develop a habit of breathing in a relaxed, deep way, you will also bring in much more oxygen and this will make a big difference in how you feel.

Don’t get discouraged, it’s not so easy to change the way we breathe, because the muscles in our chest have become used to our current way of breathing. In many cases, shallow breathing has gone on for so long that the chest and lungs have become smaller. The body will get used to using less air and it will adapt to just getting by. If you practice deep breathing exercises, you should ease into it, without forcing your body. The body is flexible and with time it will adjust to a new kind of movement.

Try to practice natural breathing for 5 or 10 minutes everyday. Simply sit with your back straight or lie down on a mat. Notice how your body and breath feels. Breathe deeply and notice how focusing on your breath slowly relaxes you. Put a hand on the belly and notice how it rises and falls. Try to breathe in a way that your belly is moving a bit, pushed by the movement of the diaphragm.

Photo Credit: Haley PhelpsUnsplash

Practice relaxation

Making time for practicing relaxation can help with all kinds of problems. Today we think we know how to relax but we really don’t. Whenever we have some free time we anxiously reach for our phones or turn on the TV. We are slowly losing the ability to simply do nothing. Try making time for just being with yourself and actually relaxing completely, without distractions. You can do this wherever you want, but a quiet room at home will make it easier at first.

You can lie down on a mat or couch, or make yourself comfortable anyway that you prefer. Breathe easily and gently. Focus gently on your breath going in and out and you will start relaxing. Slowly start by relaxing the arms and legs, then relax the chest and stomach, then shoulders, the neck and the head. This is very simple but very effective, and the more you practice the more you will be able to relax. You will also develop more awareness of your body and you will learn to identify what is going on, what areas are tense, or feel strange.

Relaxing is not being lazy. It’s taking the time to take care of yourself. In fact, try it, after working hard for a couple of hours, lie down and relax for just five minutes. You fill find that you feel more energized and can accomplish more later.

There is one technique which is very useful in creating relaxation. It’s called progressive relaxation. It was developed by a man called Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. You tense muscles in your body and then relax them. This moves blood out and brings it in, it energizes the area and awakens the nerves. Here’s an example you can try at home.