Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Benefits of Walking

Walking, especially amongst nature, provides many benefits to both physical and emotional wellbeing. It helps us to unwind and de-stress from the everyday pressures of our busy lives, whilst improving overall health and fitness. Outdoor exercise, three to five times a week, helps reduce the risk of early death and lowers the chances of contracting life threatening conditions such as premature cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In addition, it helps promote weight loss and improved mental wellbeing.

The British Mountaineering Council recently published an article about the benefits of walking, which inspired this write-up.

Over a hundred years ago, the conservationist John Muir wrote: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."

According to recent scientific studies there are many benefits experienced form walking. Some of these are:

Helps to reduce the pressures of work

Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) studied the benefits of accessing the outdoors by recording stress levels during and after viewing nature in both virtual and real outdoor environments.

Studies showed that even viewing images of nature reduced stress levels, opposed to looking at pictures of urban environments. A further study looked into the effects of undertaking regular walks over an eight week period. The results highlighted that the blood pressure and stress levels of those who took part had significantly reduced.

A lunchtime stroll not only breaks up the working day but also helps clear the mind, reduce work induced tension and refocus the mind ready for the afternoon. It is said that an evening stroll can help relax the mind and body and lead to better sleep.

Reduces Heart Disease

The Laurence Berkeley National Laboratory in California conducting a six year study of 33,600 runners and 15,045 walkers. The results showed that both running and walking reduced the risks of heart disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol. However, the study highlighted that walkers who expended the same amount of energy as runners may experience greater health benefits? Therefore, long-distance walkers may experience further health benefits? The study also proved that walking is a good way to help lose weight and also has benefits for diabetes sufferers.

Improves concentration
The stresses of modern living, especially in an urban environment, takes its toll on our brains. Busy jobs, increased work-loads, constant noise and activity all contribute to brain fatigue. When the brain becomes overloaded and tired we make mistakes, become absent-minded and irritable. One way to help our brain relax is to simply go for a walk in the countryside.

Whether it be wandering through a beautiful city park, strolling through a secluded wood, meandering along quiet country lanes or hiking in the hills, the calming effects on the mind have been recognised for many years. Being in the countryside allows the brain to engage with our surroundings in an effortless manner, which allows it to operate in a more relaxed state. According to Jenny Roe, a lecturer at Heriot-Watt’s School of the Built Environment, "It’s called involuntary attention in psychology. It holds our attention while at the same time allowing scope for reflection".

It helps you to be more creative

Dr Sowden from the School of Psychology at the University of Surrey writes: “Walking has been shown to improve our ability to shift between modes of thought, and to improve our attention, memory and recovery from mental fatigue, all of which are important for thinking creatively”. What’s more, “walking exposes us to the constant flux of a changing environment providing us with an endless array of new and unique experiences, which combined with our past memories may, through serendipity alone, provoke new associations and give birth to new ideas”.

The freedom of walking, allows our brains to relax and switch off from the day-to-day thought processes of work, driving the car and fast living. When walking in nature we often drift off into a relaxed almost meditative state, allowing us time to reflect and ponder on thoughts and ideas that are normally filed in the brains ‘for later attention’ area. It is when we are in this most relaxed state that we are most creative. I myself can vouch for this, as it is when I am out walking that I develop new ideas for my writing and plan future book titles

Nietzsche wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” Henry Thoreau also said, “Methinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow”.


Helps fight depression

It is recognised that walking and other forms of physical exercise can have a significant effect on reducing depression. The University of Stirling conducted a study of 341 patients to highlight the benefits of exercise on emotional wellbeing. The study indicated that brisk walking was one form of, “an effective intervention for depression". The Chief Executive for the mental health charity, MIND, says, "Exercising with others can have even greater impact, as it provides an opportunity to strengthen social networks, talk through problems with others or simply laugh and enjoy a break from family and work. So ask a friend to join you."

Some scientists and psychologists believe that physical exercise can be as effective as medication for treating depression and improving emotional wellbeing. A study of 202 men and women, conducted over a 4 month period, found that 45% of patients diagnosed with major depression showed significantly reduced levels of depression after exercising three times a week in a supervised group setting.

Increased Viatamin D

Being outdoors in the sun produces the required daily amount of Vitamin D in your body and increases serotonin levels, which in turn increases your bodies leptin levels. Regular outdoor exercise increases energy levels whilst reducing stress and tension.

Whilst people enjoy walking for a wealth of different reason, the benefits for physical and emotional wellbeing are clearly evident. No matter where you live in the UK there are areas of quiet green space lace-up through which you can stroll, relax and unwind. So, lace-up your walking boots, step out the front door and reap the benefits of walking in the great outdoors.

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