Why walking could be the easiest (and cheapest) way to take care of your mental health
I discovered many new things over the past two years. I discovered I’m rubbish at baking and I love painting. Most of all, I discovered that I love walking. And I mean love walking – I would go so far as to say it’s my favourite past time, alongside napping and taking baths. And during the darker days of the pandemic, when daily walks served as the only reminder of the outside world, I found walking to be a bit of a life line when it came to mental health.
There is something incredibly grounding about walking, especially among nature (I live in London, so when I say nature, I just mean anywhere with a little patch of grass and a tree or two), where you can breathe fresh air, absorb natural sunlight and put your phone away for a few liberating moments.
Plus, I found it really helps to establish perspective at times when everything seems completely overwhelming. There is still so much life and beauty all around us, and it exists outside of the insular little worlds we create for ourselves (which were made all the smaller due to lockdown) and it’s good to remember this as much as we can.
It was reassuring to hear the birds twittering, watch the grass blowing in the wind, and see squirrels squirrelling totally oblivious and utterly unfazed by the prospect of a global pandemic, imminent economic crisis and all of the pain and suffering caused by recent global events. That’s not to diminish them – on the contrary, finding emotional relief can help us become better equipped at facing our fears head on as well as expand out capacity for compassion for others.
While the power of walking was a massive revelation to me, it’s something that has been recognised as a way to take care of your mental health for years, which is why in 2016, journalist Bryony Gordon decided to ask a few people to walk with her. “I was not very well at the time and I was out running on Clapham Common near where I live, trying to make myself feel better. I couldn’t help but notice that there were all these people getting together – footballers, runners, groups of mums,” she says. “I thought, with so many of us out there suffering, why are there not groups of people with mental health issues here on the Common too?”
Bryony sent out a Tweet, inviting anyone who was interested in meeting her at a little café near the Serpentine on Valentine’s Day 2016 to join her for a walk. “To my utter surprise, 20 people turned up on the rainy morning and Mental Health Mates was born.”
More recently, ASICS released the results of one of the largest independent trials proving that a simple, movement-based programme can meaningfully improve workers’ mental wellbeing. Those taking part in the ASICS Movement for Mind programme significantly improved their mental wellbeing on the internationally recognised Warwick-Edinburgh scale.
After a tough couple of years, it’s more important than ever to take care of our mental health and make the most of the opportunity to get outside into the fresh air. “Research has found that there are significant psychological benefits in being around nature,” says Dr. Becky Spelman, counselling psychologist at The Private Therapy Clinic. “It’s calming for people and helps them to be mindful and be present in the moment. The benefits should not be underestimated – it really does wonders for mental health.”