The science behind taking a walk

Date

Linda Blair

walk

walk Photo: Good Vibrations Images

We're all familiar with the benefits of walking. Not only has this simple exercise been proved to lift your mood, it has also been shown to help manage high blood pressure, thinning bones, and type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, regular walking helps increase your ability to pay attention and maintain concentration.

All this is possible in exchange for a good pair of walking shoes and some self-discipline to make sure you walk for at least 30 minutes three times a week.

However, recent findings have shown that the benefits depend on how and where you walk. If you walk while doing something else - talking on your phone, looking at a screen, or even listening to an audio book - you're less likely to feel calm at the end of it. This is because multitasking means you're continually distracted, so cortisol levels remain elevated.

Also, because you're not paying full attention to where you're going if you're outside, or how you're positioned if you're on a treadmill, you're more likely to injure yourself.

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The best way to ensure a sense of calm and wellbeing while walking is to pay attention mindfully - that is, fully and without passing judgment - to how you're moving and what is happening around you.

Where you walk also makes a difference. In particular, walking in a natural environment has been shown to reduce stress levels more effectively than urban areas.

More specifically, there are differential benefits depending on where in nature you go. In 2015, Ellie Ratcliffe was commissioned by the National Trust to look at the differential effects of coastal and inland walks. She asked 99 people to take a walk, either in the countryside (55) or along the coast (54).

Although people in both groups felt happier and calmer after their walk, and although almost everyone reported better quality sleep and greater alertness on waking the following morning, those who walked by the coast increased their sleep by an average of 47 minutes compared with 12 minutes for the inland walkers.

Walkers were also asked to note any memories or thoughts. Here, too, there were differences. Coastal walkers described memories associated with childhood and family holidays, whereas inland walkers more often reported memories that were related to previous experiences in a more general, non-specific way.

So, if your aim is to reduce stress, take your walks in a natural environment rather than in urban surroundings. Such walks will also help you sleep more restfully.

However, if you hope to sleep for longer, or wish to feel more connected with your past, then the best place is by the seaside.

 

Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist. Her book is The Key to Calm (Hodder & Stoughton). 

The Daily Telegraph