Walk your way to wellbeing
From fitness to mindfulness, our experts help you make the most of your daily step count
Taking a daily walk – in nature if possible – is one of the simplest ways to boost your health and wellbeing. And the arrival of spring is the perfect time to get out there, reconnect with the natural world or start exploring mindful movement.
‘Walking will benefit every aspect of your brain and body,’ says Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin and author of In Praise Of Walking: The New Science Of How We Walk And Why It’s Good For Us. ‘Walking will give a boost to how you feel in the moment, to your clarity of thinking, to how you see the world, and how you think about your problems.’
Step to it
Walking is fantastic for heart health, with research suggesting that walking at a brisk pace for 75 minutes a week – that’s five 15-minute walks – could add two years to your life, while clocking up five miles a week can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s. It’s low impact, making it easy on the joints – if you’re just getting into running, walking on alternate days means you can keep active without overdoing it.
Want to turn your walk into a workout? ‘Walk at a pace where talking is hard, and you break a light sweat,’ Shane advises. ‘Try and keep up a pace of around 5.5 to 6 km per hour – something you can easily track on your smartphone or fitness tracker – and do this for about 40 minutes, three or four times a week.’ It’s important to stay active throughout the day, too. ‘10,000 steps a day is a good target to aim for,’ Shane recommends.
Reconnect and recharge
Heading out for a ramble can be a real mood-booster, helping you to relax and reconnect. ‘All our lives have been changed over the past year, and this gives us a reason to reflect on our relationship with nature, the way we live our lives and how we spend our free time,’ says Dom Higgins, head of health and education at The Wildlife Trusts. ‘Precious moments outside on a daily walk help us to relax and feel happier.’
Research has found that people who commit to 'do something wild' for 30 days enjoy lasting benefits for health, nature connectedness and happiness.
Why not try a family scavenger hunt? Before your walk, make a list of birds, bugs or plants and challenge each other to spot or photograph as many as you can.
Recording what you see, hear and experience in a nature journal can help you deepen and strengthen your connection with nature, expand your imagination and flex your creative muscles. ‘Just looking and listening helps us to pay a little more attention to the world around us, and take time to appreciate the everyday natural world,’ says Sharon Williamson, who started journalling three years ago as part of The Wildlife Trusts' 30 Days Wild challenge. ‘It’s a very mindful activity,’ she explains. ‘The more carefully you look, the more you can draw and write, and the more you draw and write, the more you notice.’
Mind your step
Moving mindfully can increase the stress-relieving, life-enhancing effects of your daily walk even more. ‘Meditating on the move is a great way to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life,’ says Sarah Romotsky, Director of Healthcare Partnerships at Headspace. ‘Mindful walking can help you to step away, reset, refresh and be present in the moment. During a sitting meditation, our object of focus is the breath. During a walking meditation, our focus becomes the rhythm of our gait.’
You can take a mindful walk outdoors, or even inside your home. 'Take in all the sights, sounds and smells around you, particularly those you wouldn’t normally notice,’ says Sarah. ‘If you're at home, try a slow motion walk in a straight line, moving forward for 10-20 paces and then turning around and walking back to your starting point.’
This meditation-in-motion can be done in your garden, living room, hallway or anywhere with enough comfortable space:
- Check in with your body and how it feels. Is it heavy or light, stiff or relaxed? How are you carrying yourself? Tune into what’s going on around you – passing cars if you are outside, your partner cooking a meal or your housemate making a cup of tea if you are at home. Try not to focus on these things, but simply acknowledge what you see, make a mental note and move on.
- Make a point of noticing any physical sensations, from the temperature and how it feels on your skin to how it feels as the soles of your feet touch the ground. Turn your attention to any smells – pleasant or unpleasant, simply notice, acknowledge and let go.
- Finally, contemplate the sensation of movement in the body: how the arms hang or swing by your sides or how your weight shifts from right to left. Observe your stride, your pace, and the rhythm you’re creating with each step. Use that rhythm – the soles of the feet touching the ground – as your base of awareness, a place you can come back to when the mind wanders off. Repeat this throughout your walk, step by step.
Headspace offers a number of guided walking meditation exercises which can be done outside or in the comfort of your home.
Get the kids on their feet
Why not make a mindful walk part of your family’s daily or weekly routine? ‘Spending time outside in nature gives you the perfect opportunity to practise mindfulness with your children, connect with each other and develop their imaginations, encouraging them to be more present in the moment as they grow up,’ says Sarah.
Focus their attention on their senses: ask them to listen out for interesting noises, pay attention to the colours of the plants around them and feel the warmth from the sun or the wind on their faces.
‘The two key steps are observing and describing. Ask kids to notice what’s around them and then give them simple prompts to help them describe what they hear, see, smell and touch,’ says Sarah. ’At the end of your walk, ask them to talk about how they felt and discuss what they heard and experienced during that moment. This will help them to discover things that would usually be overlooked or taken for granted, and bring their attention back into a focused, present state.’
If you’re heading out out, take a few minutes to make a checklist of outdoor essentials. Whatever the weather, an insulated, reusable water bottle is essential. ‘Be prepared for every eventuality,’ David warns. ‘Never leave home without your waterproofs, and dig out a decent torch – just in case you get caught out. And a flask for tea, coffee or hot chocolate is a must!’
Smartphone and smartwatch apps are invaluable, but if you’re heading off the beaten track, always take a map and compass, as well as a wireless charger. And don’t forget your skin – a hardworking sunscreen that will protect you from the elements is key (and won’t leave you red-faced).
Main image: Getty Images