Walking for Wellbeing
One activity I find is wonderful for both my body and mind is walking. I like walking in general just to get from a to b in my daily life. What I love though is purposely going for a walk somewhere surrounded by nature.
The exercise and fresh air is obviously good for the body, but I also find walking is calming and relaxing for the mind. Taking a walk in the countryside, be that through parkland or fields, around a lake, along a canal, through woodlands, over hills, or along a coastline, is a great way to get out of your head and reduce mental chatter. When I’m immersed in the sights, smells and sounds of nature, I find any worries, rumination or negative thinking fades into the background as my mind is so occupied with the sensory experience.
It’s a real pleasure to just have time out from busy everyday life to admire the colours, shapes and variety of the trees, plants, flowers and scenery around me and when I do this everything seems more vivid and beautiful. I find walking by calm still water, or a gently flowing river, particularly relaxing and water can look magical in different lights. I like tuning in to the sounds of the birds and wildlife which become so much louder when you focus your ears. As an animal lover, I enjoy coming across fields of farm animals, cute lambs in the spring or spotting some wild rabbits.
My favourite type of walking route though is one that includes a hill or mountain. I enjoy the challenge, having a specific goal and the feeling of reaching the top. The most special thing though when you’ve walked to somewhere on higher ground is the views. As well as just getting spectacular views on a clear day from the top of a hill, I think it helps give perspective on life. When you’re up looking for miles around in all directions it can be quite grounding and humbling as you’re reminded that you are just one tiny part of the world.
There are plenty of articles and reports too to show that walking and being connected to nature helps our bodies and minds. Here are links to a few examples:
Walking for Health – Walking Works
Walking for Wellbeing – How walking can help you
Imperial Health & Wellbeing – The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Walking
Ramblers Association – Health Benefits of Walking
Psych Blog – 6 Ways Being Connected to Nature Reduces Anxiety
Huffington Post – How Autumn Walks Can Improve Your Mental Wellbeing
I was fortunate to grow up in Yorkshire and have parents that enjoyed putting on their hiking boots and taking my sister and I out on walks to pretty places. We lived in a town, but the Yorkshire countryside was just a short drive away. Now I will admit that I’m pretty sure as a child I sometimes complained “Oh, not another boring walk” when my Mum told me that was the plan for the day’s activities! However, I have lots of nice memories of walking and clearly I enjoyed it as once I was a teenager I purposely choose to do more walking by completing a Duke of Edinburgh award. My love of walking has continued to grow as an adult and it’s lovely to have an activity my family and I can enjoy together still today and you can walk anywhere.
I am really grateful that I know the value and joy of walking. This year I enjoyed a wonderful holiday in the Shetland Isles and came back feeling refreshed and revitalised after lots of fresh air and exercise in the most beautiful surroundings. My absolute favourite part of my holiday were the days I went walking on my own around a couple of the islands. I put on my hiking boots, took a packed lunch and went roaming, walking along some of the beautiful, dramatic coastline. Even though it was pretty windy in places, it was so peaceful and relaxing. I loved the freedom of walking on my own, going where I wanted and pausing whenever I wanted to sit, take photographs of the stunning landscape or watch the thousands of seabirds circling in the wind and nesting on the cliff edges. On one hand walking alone can make it easier to get lost in thought, but being surrounded by amazing scenery helps you not get caught up in too much thinking and not chatting away to anyone else does mean you can focus much more on the experience.
I’ve been lucky to be able to walk in some very picturesque places around the UK in addition to Yorkshire, including the Lake District, Wales and Scotland. I find though a stroll in an urban area can also be lovely too. I tend to mostly run or drive along the roads in my local area, but I also sometimes purposely take a walk. It’s interesting how much more you notice when you walk and pay mindful attention to what you can see. I often feel like I see buildings I’ve never seen before – of course they are not new, it’s just I haven’t noticed them despite passing by hundreds of times. Purposely just taking a walk wherever I am can bring a sense of calm if I slow down and approach it mindfully. I might try to tune in to my footsteps, my breathing and the air against the skin, or to particularly notice the light and shadows, the designs of the building, the detail of the ground, or the colours of the sky.
An activity I like to combine with walking is photography. I was feeling under the weather with a cough the other week and hadn’t been out of my flat for a few days, so I decided to take a mindful photography walk. It was a lovely sunny autumn day so I purposely focused on capturing images of the autumn leaves. Paying close attention to everything I could see to identify good photo opportunities enabled me to be more absorbed in activity and made all the colours and shapes seem more vivid. This all added to my enjoyment of the walk. It also meant I looked up, down and around more, noticing things I might not otherwise have seen.
A great thing about walking is it’s an activity you can do on your own or with other people. If you are looking for company to walk with, then there are plenty of walking groups around the UK. Many are registered with the Ramblers, meaning you can find their details by searching their online database. You might associate walking groups with a particularly age range, but they are diversifying and I found a walking group in the Midlands to join specifically for people in their 20s and 30s. Their group walks enabled me to be guided around walking routes in my surrounding area I hadn’t tried before, whilst chatting to other like-minded people. Another useful tool for finding a group is Meetup, a website and app helping you find local groups on themes that interest you. I find the groups on Meetup commonly include a variety of walking, outdoors, adventure and challenge groups, some of which organise weekend walking trips away. There also seems to now be a growing number of groups specifically for walkers with dogs too, giving members the chance to social with other dog owners whilst on their walk.
If I’ve inspired you to get walking and venturing into the countryside is a new activity for you, here are some tips based on my experience:
Wear decent footwear – Not only do you want to be comfortable on your walk, but it’s really important to protect your feet and ankles so you can keep on enjoying walking! Footwear with good ankle support and stability will reduce the chance of strains and sprains when walking on uneven ground and good grip will prevent some embarrassing slip in the mud! In the summer you might want something more breathable and for walks anywhere wet waterproof footwear is a must! Personally, I love my leather hiking boots, but there are all sorts of style around. You don’t necessarily have to spend too much either, I may now have invested in some quality boots, but before my current pair somehow a cheap pair of hiking boots I got when I was a teenager, lasted for about twelve years (ok, perhaps I didn’t quite wear them enough in that time, but the point is good boots are a worthwhile investment as they’ll last a good time)!
Take layers – It’s likely you’ll feel different temperatures at different points on your walk as your surroundings, direction and speed vary, particularly with the changeable British weather! I do have a reputation somewhat for being slightly over prepared and can end up carrying an unnecessarily heavy bag, but I have certainly benefited from having a hat to put on at the top of a windy hill (even in the summer!), waterproof trousers to whip out in a rain storm (not glamorous but better than a soggy bottom), and layers of tops I can take off when I get hot.
Carry a rucksack – If you are going for more than a short stroll you’ll need to carry things and a rucksack, even better if it has padded straps, will make this much more comfortable. It’s surprising what you can comfortably carry too when the weight is evenly distributed on your shoulders. Most walking shops now do a variety of sizes so you can pick a size to suit you. For example, I typically have handbags full of all sorts of stuff (my excuse is having the message of ‘be prepared’ drilled into my at Girl Guides!) so in keeping I have a decent sized rucksack. My sister though usually travels pretty light wherever she goes, so she has a small, compact walking rucksack.
Pack a map – Although mobile phones now tend to work in most places, there’s still areas where you’ll get little reception and switching off technology on your walk can enhance the experience. I think there’s also real enjoyment in being able to follow a map and this gives you a much better sense of your route. You can buy ordnance survey maps which show footpaths, but for most popular walks you will find instructions and maps online with a little searching or you may be able to pick up a walk leaflet from a local visitor centre. See the Smile Being You Resource Directory for some useful walking resources. That said I’ve been on plenty of walks with step by step instructions and a map and still taken a wrong turn! It’s also very helpful to have a map if a member of your walking party suggests a detour to ensure you don’t get lost and you can work out the real distance of any new path. In undulating, green landscapes distances can be deceptive, what looks like a quick detour to see something interesting can sometimes end up adding a few extra hours – I say this as in my family we often laugh about my Dad’s fondness of suggesting a ‘quick detour’ which in our experience over the years has often actually added a pretty sizeable distance to our walk! (though I must give him credit for taking us on some great walking routes.)
Tell someone where you are going – If you are venturing out alone, let someone know where you are going, particularly if you are going anywhere slightly remote or challenging like climbing a mountain. This may sound a little bit over cautious, but even the most experienced walkers sometimes take a fall on a walk and if you were unlucky enough to sustain an injury and not be able to call for help, you’d want someone to look for you!
Carry water and food – Water is an absolute must! Please don’t underestimate the amount of hydration your body needs when walking, especially on a warm day. If you’re going to be out for a good number of hours it can be really nice (and necessary) to stop for a picnic so pack some lunch, but whatever the length of your walk definitely take some snacks to keep you going!
I hope I’ve encouraged you to do more walking and enjoy the beautiful nature and wildlife all around us and you get as much enjoyment from it as I do. You will find a number of useful walking websites within the exercise and activity sections of the Smile Being You Resource Directory.
About the Author