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. 

What can honey do for you?

Until recently I didn’t give honey much importance and I didn’t know much about it. I grew up and currently live in Spain, but when I was a kid my family and I would spend some time at my grandmother’s house in Ohio, where my father is from. When we were sick my grandmother used to give me and my brothers apple cider vinegar and honey as a remedy, so I was aware on some level of its health benefits.

About a year ago I was walking back home and I saw a man from outside Barcelona who was selling jars of honey on the street. I saw some kinds I had never tried, such as oak and heather honey, so I bought a couple. I was intrigued by the beautiful dark colors. One of them was crystallized, which I thought was strange at first, but later learned that it only happens to very good and natural honey. Natural raw honey will crystallize over time because the percentage of carbohydrates is much higher than that of water. It does not damage the honey in any way. When I tried them at home I absolutely loved them and I bought other kinds, such as thyme and rosemary honey. Now I use honey almost everyday, either in my oatmeal or a hot beverage.

What is honey?

Honey is a substance made by bees from the nectar of flowers and plants. Many kinds of bees make honey, but only one species, the Apis Mellifera, lives in big enough colonies that can make enough honey for humans to profit from.

The way this works is that plants require pollination to reproduce. To do this they need to exchange their pollen with other plants of the same species. Some plants rely on the wind for this purpose, but others use pollinators such as bees to carry their pollen around. To attract pollinators, plants offer nectar. Bees suck the nectar and put into a pouch they have in their bodies, separate from their stomach. And long story short, this nectar will be refined by the bees into honey.

Honey is one of the wonders of nature. Think about all the work that goes into a jar of honey. Even though the main two substances in honey are sugar and water, studies have found up to 180 different compounds in honey, such as amino acids, enzymes, vitamins and antioxidants. Scientists have also discovered that honeybees work as a kind of superorganism. Every single bee is always doing something for the hive, either collecting nectar, defending the hive or feeding their larvae. A honeybee will have a life of around 40 days, and 30 of those will be spent collecting nectar from hundreds of flowers, in addition to resinous sap and pollen.

Honey and its health properties

Honey has been used by humans for a very long time. There is an interesting cave painting in Spain dating back about 8000 years, which depicts a woman carrying a basket or gourd, climbing on to a tree with what seem to be ropes or maybe a ladder, and gathering honey from hive. Close to the middle east, in Georgia, archaeologists have found remains of honey on clay vessels in an ancient tomb dating back around 5000 years.

In ancient Egypt it was used for religious and medicinal practices, as well as in cooking to sweeten cakes and biscuits. In the Smith papyrus, one of the oldest Egyptian medical texts dating back around 2600 and 2200 BC, the recipe for a basic wound salve is made from a mixture of grease, honey and fiber. In ancient Greece honey was also held in high esteem for its medicinal uses. The Greek physician Hippocrates often used honey as part of his prescriptions for a variety of troubles. And in the Indian ayurvedic tradition, honey is seen to possess many therapeutic qualities as well. To sum up, honey has a long history of therapeutic use in many cultures around the world.

In the past decades researchers have been inquiring a bit into the healing qualities of this sticky substance. The most important quality of honey scientists have discovered is its antibacterial activity. In one of my favorite cook books, The longevity Kitchen by Rebecca Katz and Mat Edelson, they say “honey’s reputation for fighting infection is so robust that some hospitals use it to combat staph bacteria in their wards”. This is why grandmas have been giving honey as a cure for sore throats for centuries. Just recently in 2020, a study from the university of Oxford proved that honey is more effective in treating “upper respiratory tract infections”, like coughs and sore throats, than antibiotics or over-the- counter medicines. In addition to its antibacterial properties, there is evidence of its antiviral and anti-inflamatory properties.

Partly because of it’s antibacterial activity, honey is one of the oldest wound-healing substances known to man. Some researchers have been looking into this and have confirmed that honey can help heal acute wounds and mild skin burns. It not only helps clean the wound, but it also accelerates the regeneration of tissue. However, from what I’ve learned most doctors and researchers believe a larger body of evidence is needed. Further research into honey might take a while. Since it’s not something that can be patented by pharmaceutical companies, there isn’t a lot of incentive to investigate.

What is certain is that when you have a cough or a sore throat, honey will help your body recover. But you don’t need to wait until you get sick, including honey as part of your routine will strengthen your immune system. I like to have it almost everyday because I find it absolutely delicious. As with everything, don’t over do it, honey is still mostly made of sugar and water, even though it is much healthier than artificial sweeteners.

How to find great natural honey

Finding great honey is quite simple. You can do an online search for natural unprocessed honey in your area and see who is making it. Another way would be to go to your local farmer’s market and see if anybody is selling honey. Most likely someone will. The honey I’m using now is from a family run business north of Barcelona. I met them at one of the Sunday markets in my neighborhood.

When we buy everything from big supermarkets, we don’t really know how and where anything has been produced. Of course, there are certain standards and rules, so we see a product comes from such and such a place, or if it’s marked as organic we have some idea about how it has been produced. But we really don’t have any connection to the food itself. I would say it’s important to have a stronger emotional connection with some of the foods we eat. It adds extra sweetness and joy to our daily lives, and honey is great way to do it! Moreover, it gives you a sense of belonging to your own land and people.

You will notice unprocessed natural honey has a much thicker consistency than the processed one. The thickness of natural honey makes me think of Winnie-the-pooh, and how he would get his hands very sticky and messy or get his head stuck in honey jars all the time.

So make a connection with a local farmer or business and buy natural honey. When you open the jar in the morning, smell the honey and think of all the bees that put in hard work to produce it. A honeybee will produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon during its lifetime. So on average it takes the life of twelve bees to make a single teaspoon. Think of all the flowers they extracted the nectar from, how they had to fly hear and there collecting it. And now you can have it whatever way you like most!

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.