You’ve probably heard all about how walking can be a great form of exercise. While it may not replace your sessions at the gym, a brisk walk is an excellent way to get the blood flowing and grab a quick mood boost.
You’ve probably also heard how important it is to spend time outdoors. Especially today, where so much of our work is done in cramped, sterile offices, getting outside can be a breath of fresh air (pun intended).
What about combining the two, though? A walk through the woods or on a hiking trail is a fantastic way to get some exercise and clear your head, and may have lasting mental health benefits, as well. In this article, we’ll explore all the ways nature walks can positively impact your life.
The Physical Benefits of Nature Walks
Since walking is a form of exercise, the natural place to start is with the physical benefits.
The CDC and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) both recommend two and a half hours per week of aerobic activity to help maintain good physical health. A fast-paced walk can be a simple way to meet this requirement, and the benefits are numerous:
- Improved cardiovascular and respiratory health. Research reviews suggest that walking can play a role in preventing both primary and secondary cardiovascular disease across nearly all populations.
- Better bone and joint health. Walking has been suggested as a useful part of an exercise routine to encourage bone and joint health, along with strength training, hiking, and other activities.
- Lower blood pressure. Studies indicate that walking can, over a prolonged period, help lower blood pressure, a major contributor to heart disease.
- Reduced risk of diabetes. Studies indicate walking for at least 30 minutes per day significantly reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes (by as much as 50%).
- Weight loss. Calories burned from brisk walking (or, even better, a strenuous hike) can go a long way towards meeting healthy weight goals, along with proper diet and nutrition.
The nice thing about walking outdoors is you can easily tailor the difficulty and intensity of the exercise to match your needs. If you need more intensity, you can take the tough, uphill hiking trail. If you need a light day to recover, a simple walk around the block in the afternoon can do wonders.
Additionally, the speed can easily be varied to reach different levels of aerobic intensity. It’s an ideal form of exercise for people that might be limited in exercise options due to other underlying conditions.
Natural Stress Relief
The ‘nature’ part of a nature walk carries its own benefits, many of them significant. The first, and perhaps most important for daily life, is stress relief.
There’s an entire field in psychology known as ‘ecotherapy’, and it centers around the premise that time spent in nature correlates with reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Studies indicate that individuals who spend time walking in nature show reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is associated with rumination, which is a repetitive focus on negative emotions.
Being in nature also encourages mindfulness. With so many pleasant distractions outdoors, it’s easier to get out of your own head and stop focusing so much on the things that are stressing you out. Just being out in nature can be soothing and encourage relaxation. When combined with the exercise from walking, this effect is magnified.
Increase Resilience with Mother Nature
Resilience is often defined as the ability to bounce back from adversity. In other words, challenging situations arise during the course of life – divorce, job loss, death in the family, isolation due to uncontrollable factors (like the current COVID pandemic). These challenges are inevitable, but what’s important is how well we can recover from them and get back into the swing of life.
Extensive studies indicate that nature walks can help increase resiliency. While they may not reduce the distress associated with major life challenges, they can help us bounce back faster and provide a short-term boost in feel-good chemicals in the brain, thanks to the effects of exercise and simply being outdoors in a natural setting.
Nature Walks in the Treatment of Mental Illness
Both mild exercise and time spent in nature are recognized treatments for mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety. In this case, nature walks effectively kill two birds with one stone by combining the two activities.
While nature walks on their own probably won’t cure depression, they can be very effective when combined with therapy and other lifestyle changes.
Health and wellness – both physical and mental – don’t have to be complex. Sometimes it’s the simple things that are most effective. After all, who would have thought of incorporating nature walks as a key aspect of their exercise routine?
However, combined with proper diet, nutrition, and sleep, nature walks can be a fantastic way to promote both physical and mental health. Find your favorite outdoor spot and get walking!
Grant Reid is the founder of one of Canada's fastest growing health and wellness coaching companies called GFIT Wellness.