“We live in a fast-paced society. Walking slows us down” (Robert Sweetgall, Author; Walking Wellness)
For those of you who don’t know, the month of May is ‘National Walking Month’ and is about both raising awareness and promoting the benefits of walking and ultimately getting all of us up and out walking, no matter what our fitness levels are.
And indeed, the benefits – both physical and mental - are well researched, documented and numerous, to say the least. We ran an article, as well as an infographic earlier this year, on the many benefits this fantastic physical activity has to offer.
And what better month than May? Early mornings, late evenings and every day getting longer and longer as we move towards June and the Summer Solstice, offering us ever more daylight to make the time to put one front in front of the other, mosey from A to B, and explore the place.
But if, like me, you find your occasional daily recommended dose of 30 minutes strolling down a busy London high street leaves you a bit frazzled and questioning the science of it all, then you may want to keep on reading.
Let’s face it, city streets aren’t exactly the ideal venue for exercise are they? Pollution, litter, noise, questionable smells, interesting people, crime if you are really unlucky, regular invasions of your personal space, trip hazards, collision hazards….it may well feel like one big hazard! Rendering benefits neutralised by the neuroticism of it all.
But hey, it beats being cooked-up in the office sat on my back-side all day long. Another hazard.
So what is the cure? Migrate to the country? We may dream about a country manor when we hit the big time, but the sad reality is that in the world today, over 50% of the lovely people populating our world live in urban settings, and what with population increases and the subsequent ‘urban sprawl’, this figure is predicted to increase to as high as 70% by 2050. That house in the country is either getting further away, or the sprawl is getting closer to it.
Increased urbanisation, and the subsequent increased disconnect with nature, is associated with increased levels of mental illness, including anxiety, stress and depression. Studies have shown, through various means of scanning and measuring, that city living has been found to increase activity of the Amygdala – the brain’s “danger sensor” – as well as increased neural activity in a part of the brain called the subgenal pre-frontal cortex, which is linked to repetitive thought focused on negative emotions; described as rumination in the study, or brooding to you and me.
In essence, the sheer amount of urban factors that our brains take in in any given minute, not to mention threats (whether actual or perceived) the urban jungle throws our way, results in our sensese being on full alert for periods of time that are, arguably, far too long than is healthy.
Perhaps the means to scan and measure this stimulation in the brain is relatively new, but the theories relating to over-stimulation have been around for years. As far back as the 1980’s, Kaplan and Kaplan proposed that people dwelling in urban environments suffer from an excess of what they referred to as “bottom-up” stimulation. This constant stimulation forces us to focus our attention over long periods of time, and the subsequent result is cognitive fatigue and stress.
It’s not so much the fact that cities necessarily stress us out – although I’m sure that anybody living in London can tell you it can, and does – but more the fact that cities leave us little opportunity to switch off. And it is this constant and excessive activity that scientists are speculating could be the root cause of many of the mental health problems observed.
An interesting viewpoint from David Suzuki, an environmentalist out of Canada, is the notion that our brains didn’t evolve in cities, but it has taken only a tiny fraction of that time period for humans to migrate into and increasingly populate an environment that grows bigger, faster and seemingly ever-more frenetic year-on-year. And for many, the negative effects on our wellbeing could be the result.
So, you may not be surprised to find that there is an ever-growing body of research demonstrating the positive effects of exposure to nature and the rural environment on our health and wellbeing.
Walking and exercising in the great outdoors is increasingly being understood to offer a whole host of ‘antidotes’ to city hustle, including reduced depression, improved feelings of wellbeing and mental health and a lowered perception of stress. And don’t forget all the other benefits we mentioned, on top of all that.
But it is easier said than done to take a couple of hours out of a busy weekend, not to mention the cost of travelling to one of the beautiful rural locations surrounding London, although we feel that the time and cost are well worth it.
But to gain the benefits, you don’t have to travel as far as you may think – numerous studies have found that urban green spaces such as parks and gardens within can offer similar benefits – namely the opportunity to switch off, reflect and alleviate the symptoms of stress, depression and cognitive fatigue. And if there is one thing London has plenty of, it’s parks and gardens. So what are you waiting for?
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