Why walking will make you happier

Why walking will make you happier — how to survive the next 6 months

The simple act of taking a stroll in nature can have a dramatic effect on your mood

Peta Bee

Extract from The Times of Friday September 25 2020

We have never needed nature more than we do now. We’re faced with new restrictions that could last six months, a general mood of unease and uncertainty, and shorter and darker days. The good news is that there is an effective way to boost your mood dramatically — and it’s as simple as a walk in the park.

Last week scientists revealed that a short “awe” walk, where you make a conscious effort to look for things to be amazed by, taken once a week can combat negative emotions and help to maintain a healthy mind. According to researchers from Trinity College Dublin and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who reported their findings in the journal Emotion, older adults who took the weekly 15-minute walks for eight weeks reported increased positive emotions such as compassion and gratitude, and less distress in their daily lives.

A control group who took the walks, but were not told to seek out anything awe- inspiring — no looking up at starry skies or observing the vast canopy of the forest — tended to be more inwardly focused, stressed and concerned about to-do lists. Both groups were asked to take selfies at the beginning, middle and end of each walk. Analysis of these photos revealed that the awe group increasingly made themselves smaller in their photos over the course of the study, focusing instead on the landscapes around them. Their smiles also grew measurably wider.

“What we show here is that a very simple intervention — essentially a reminder to occasionally shift our energy and attention outward instead of inward — can lead to significant improvements in emotional wellbeing,” says Virginia Sturm, an associate professor in the departments of neurology and of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at UCSF.

This is just the latest study to show the mental and physical benefits of taking a walk in natural surroundings. Since lockdown began in March, a growing number of people have appreciated just how effective walking is, not only in preventing weight gain, but in warding off negative feelings. A study of 4,382 people commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation found that six in ten adults who felt stressed because of Covid-19 and lockdown rules said that going for a walk helped them to cope, while 47 per cent of those surveyed said visiting green spaces was particularly beneficial.

The Greenway Haxey

The latest statistics from the government’s People and Nature Survey for England, led by Natural England, paint a similar picture. In July two thirds of those surveyed had spent time outside in green and natural spaces during the two weeks before — the highest levels since the pandemic hit the UK. Almost half were walking outside more than before the pandemic, and 42 per cent reported that “nature and wildlife is more important than ever” to their wellbeing.

“Being outdoors helps to reduce stress levels in the brain and the body,” says Dr Jennifer Wild, a consultant clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Oxford and the author of Be Extraordinary. “Walking in nature not only boosts your fitness but your immunity, most likely because you’re benefiting from lower levels of inflammation-inducing stress hormones coursing through your body,” she says.

How else will getting out for a walk help you to get through the next few months? We asked the experts.

Regular walking boosts immunity When we breathe in fresh air we breathe in phytoncides, airborne organic compounds that trees and plants release to protect themselves from insects. Research from Japan suggests that this could partly explain the health-boosting properties of nature walks.

In one study researchers measured the effects of spending three days in a forest on the activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer (NK) cells, which fight disease in the body. The results showed that NK cell activity was significantly higher after time spent in woodland, with effects lasting for more than 30 days.

“Immersing yourself in nature typically has the sort of health outcomes we could only dream of getting from a spa,” says Dr Katie Cooper, a psychologist and the author of Plant Therapy. “It is free, it has an immediate impact, and in some cases seems to outperform long-term therapy.”

View from Haxey to the south

Your memory and attention span will improve Concerned about a short attention span and “brain fog”? When University of Michigan psychologists explored the cognitive benefits of being exposed to nature they found that walking in greenery, in any season, improved memory and attention.

Participants in the study were asked to follow either an urban route down busy streets or a more “natural” one, through botanical gardens and parks. The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that the nature walks improved short-term memory by 20 per cent, while there were no improvements shown after walking down city streets.

“Our capacity to focus is finite, and walking through busy streets taxes our attention with second-by-second decisions such as when to walk around people,” Wild says. “Walking through nature gives a break from the emotional and social situations that require problem-solving, and seems to help people perform better in tasks later on in the day.”

Midlifers can reduce risk of diabetes and heart disease Earlier this year, findings presented to the American Heart Association revealed that middle-aged people who walked the most steps per day over an average of nine years had a 43 per cent lower risk of type 2 diabetes and a 31 per cent lower risk of high blood pressure (a risk factor for heart disease) compared with those who took the fewest steps.

In a recent review of global data involving more than 290 million people, researchers from the medical school at the University of East Anglia (UEA) found that regular exposure to green spaces — such as open fields, urban parks and street greenery — had “diverse and significant” health benefits, including a drop in the risk of type 2 diabetes. “People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress,” says Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett, the lead author of the UEA study. Andy Jones, a professor of public health at UEA and one of the study’s authors, says “the size of these benefits can be enough to have a meaningful clinical impact” on health.

Within 20 minutes stress hormones in the body will be reduced A 20-minute stroll in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature is enough to significantly lower your stress hormone levels, according to a study published in 2019 by psychologists at the University of Michigan. So potent and measurable were the effects that the team suggested that medical professionals prescribe “nature pills” to combat stress.

During the eight-week study participants were asked to spend ten minutes or more walking in nature at least three times a week. Saliva samples were taken to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol before and after the walks. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20-30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature,” says MaryCarol Hunter, an associate professor at the university, who led the study.

The Turbary SSSI woodland

A yomp relaxes the brain Relentlessly depressing news bulletins and worries about work and family can mean that your brain rarely gets a break. When you step into greenery, your mind automatically stops circling endlessly around the same problems. “You start to focus outside your head, observing what is going on around you rather than using the analytical side of your brain as you do when working,” Wild says.

Cooper says that looking at plants and trees and their “fractal patterns” — forms that repeat themselves, such as the patterns on leaves, the way petals grow and how branches spread — has an immediate stress-busting effect. “Research has shown that nature’s fractal patterns induce alpha brainwaves in us, evoking a relaxed, yet wakeful state,” she says. “They are effortless to look at and yet interesting enough to draw our eye towards them. The way we perceive fractal patterns puts us at ease.”