As a result of Foresight’s Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project in 2008, the New Economics Foundation set out 5 actions to improve wellbeing; small things that everybody can do to support their personal health and happiness:
Most of us recognise the physical health benefits of walking, and more research is coming in all the time about the mental health benefits, but have you ever thought that the reason for the connection between walking and wellbeing might be because walking ticks all five boxes? It helps us to connect, it is a way of being active, it creates beautiful opportunities for us to take notice, it can inspire lifelong learning and it links us in to the fabric of our communities. What’s not to like?
Walking may be the nation’s favourite pastime, but it is closely followed by the desire to natter, chat, chinwag, catch up and generally shoot the breeze. And walking and talking go brilliantly hand in hand. There is nothing like a long walk with a good friend to put the world to rights. A tricky conversation had outdoors, whilst strolling side-by-side can often go more smoothly than we had imagined. And inviting a new acquaintance for a walk can be a fantastic ice-breaker; there’s no pressure for eye contact, you can match the conversation to the easy pace of your stroll, and there are countless things to comment on to break any awkward silences; plants, animals and of course the weather. And if you are lucky enough to have a dog companion, you’ll see that even total strangers will enjoy stopping to say hello!
Walking has got to be the world’s best, easiest and most accessible exercise. It has countless speed settings, the wallpaper is infinitely varied, and it doesn’t require any specialist kit or equipment. A brisk 10-minute daily walk has lots of health benefits and counts towards your recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise. But even leisurely-paced walks are good for mental health, because moving in a pleasurable way in pleasant surroundings increases endorphins, reduces stress, boosts self-esteem and improves mood. And you are in charge! You can choose the route, change the pace, stop to admire the view or even do some shopping, photography or socialising along the way.
This is the secret to turning a walk from a chore into a delight; use the opportunity to look around you. Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Smell the roses, both literally and metaphorically. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. A walk can be an excellent opportunity to practise mindfulness. Bring your attention to your breath, the sensations of movement, and the information of your senses. Feel the sun on your skin, hear the birdsong, notice the shapes and patterns of nature. And notice your inner feelings too. How are you feeling? How are your thoughts? What is your soul saying? Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you and enable you to live in alignment with your values, being true to who you are.
A walk can be really simple, but it can also be an opportunity to stretch the mind and expand your horizons. A walk in a new part of town can teach you more about the place you live; the history, the architecture, the geography of the place. You can read blue plaques, discover new stories, understand how places and services connect to each other. And in the countryside, you can have a go at bird or plant identification, or think about the evolution of the landscape; how field boundaries, paths and features have grown and changed under human influence. If you’re really keen, you can get technical with a map and compass, learning navigation skills and charting the topography of an area in detail, matching up what you can see in front of you with the symbols on the map and even finding your bearings in unknown locations.
Walking is a way of tuning in to the pace of life at ground level, and as such it helps us to live more slowly and in closer connection to others. When we walk around our communities, instead of zooming around isolated in cars or high up in buses, we see what is really going on. We might catch sight of a person in need, glimpse a notice in a window or recognise an opportunity to reach out to others and get involved. On a walk there are countless opportunities to smile at strangers, offer assistance or directions, pick up litter, hold a gate open for someone, or stop to find out more about a local group. By giving your time and service to the benefit of the community, you’ll feel better about yourself and more connected to others. And the more you feel at home in your area, the more inspired you’ll be to continue making that community safer and nicer for everyone. Which in turn will inspire more people to get out and about.
Since May is National Walking Month, why not start today, and walk yourself into wellbeing? There are countless walking groups to join if you don’t want to go alone, and even a well-being walking group to meet people on the same journey.
See you out there, folks! Just make sure you stop to say hi!