Health benefits of walking

There’s nothing quite like a walk in a park, down a country lane, through woods, fields, across moors, downs, by the sea or in a leafy area of a town or city to clear away the cobwebs and lift our spirits at this time of year. What’s more, walking has a number of health benefits.

According to a survey by the Ramblers’ Association, only 25% of adults in the UK walk for more than an hour every week. This alarmingly low statistic even includes trips to the local shop, the school run or getting to and from work.

So why should we be walking more? Here we explain a few of the health benefits.

Health benefits of walking

Walking is one of the best ways for people of all ages to get fit and feel great. Best of all, it’s free. As a regular form of exercise it’s ideal.

Research shows that a daily 30-minute walk that gets your heart pumping reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. It also lowers cholesterol levels, helps ward off diabetes and asthma, and may even reduce the risk of developing certain cancers including colon, breast and womb.

Walking for mental wellbeing

Regular walking benefits our mental health too. We all recognise that getting outside into the fresh air can lift our mood, ease anxiety or wake up a sluggish mind. Walking also gives us the opportunity to get outside and connect with nature. Biologist Edward O. Wilson calls this feeling ‘biophilia’. He argues that all humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life.

With many of us spending more time inside, staring at our various screens than ever before, it is argued that the lack of biophilic activities and time spent in nature may be strengthening our sense of disconnect. Psychologist Hugh O’Donovan explains in his book Mindful Walking: Walk Your Way to Mental and Physical Wellbeing that walking with others is an especially great way to bond and see the things that unite rather than divide us: “When people walk together in nature, on the beach or on a mountain, they open up and shed the casing of reserve that clings to us in our everyday lives.”

Additionally, studies show that regular medium-intensity exercise, such as walking, can be just as effective as antidepressants. In some cases it may possibly reduce the risk of dementia by up to 40%!

The power of green spaces

It has long been known that ‘green exercise’ – being physically active in a natural environment – benefits mental wellbeing. As Dr Jo Barton of the Green Exercise programme at the University of Essex observes, “Whether in the city or countryside, you’re likely to feel better somewhere green. Even when it is bitterly cold or lashing with rain, being close to nature and the elements seems to improve our sense of wellbeing, enhancing mood and self-esteem.”

We don’t even need to go on a long hike to reap the benefits of walking. Research from the University of Essex and the University of Kuopio in Finland reveals that a short lunchtime walk in a green environment is far more restorative for the autonomic nervous system than a similar-length walk in a built-up environment. This is the system that controls unconscious activities such as heartbeat, digestion and blood pressure. The team also say that a lunchtime nature walk helps boost the restorative power of sleep.

Women in particular appear to be sensitive to the benefits of green space. Research shows that daily patterns of the stress hormone cortisol are more in balance in those living in areas with more green space. This is an important finding given that cortisol imbalances underlie many emotional problems, including anxiety, low mood and depression.

Play time

If your children need a little more persuading, try encouraging them with the promise of a game of ‘catching wishes’. This is much more energetic and challenging than it sounds and a firm favourite of the Wellbeing team! Look up at the sky and watch out for any falling leaves ahead, then run to catch one before it lands on the floor.  If you succeed, you’ve earned yourself a wish. Close your eyes and announce your wish out loud (comes in really handy for birthday present ideas too!).

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