Walking; no matter how and where we do it (within reason!) and who we do it with, is beneficial to our fitness, health and wellbeing. But science offers some ideas on how you can chop and change it up to add some tiny ‘tweaks’ to your walks to reap huge benefits. Read on to find out how you could use these findings to achieve that ‘perfect walk’
With the end of May, we say goodbye to National Walking month. But, we hope that, like us, last month has merely hailed the start of a marvellous Summer full of walking.
June offers the longest days of the year, and (fingers crossed!) the potential for some of the best weather, so if last month gave you a taste for more footwork, then with Summer still yet to get into full swing, it’s all to play for with plenty more weeks, months even, for fine exploring to be done and exercising to be had.
But the question we would like to ask is….have you given any thought as to how you could possibly make your walks any better?
And before you say a stroll along a beach in Cap d’Antibes heading for the beach bar for an ice cold, nice cold sauvignon blanc (great thought btw!) we were thinking the smaller tweaks, more accessible, closer to home, tick ‘em off on a day-off sort of options. Small improvements perhaps, but immensely effective and offering huge benefits to our fitness, health, and wellbeing.
Walking, granted, is an excellent exercise no matter where and how you get it in, and there are many arguments to support the notion that any type of walking ticks the box when it comes to fitness and many aspects of health.
But there also seems to be plenty of evidence out there to suggest that not all walks are necessarily equal, with plenty of options to consider for gaining the most benefits; whatever your goal is.
So, we thought we would share with you some of the science which you might want to try and apply in the pursuit of walks par excellence….and we hope some excellent experiences and memories, to make the most of your summer walks.
Location, location, location….
As we discussed in our last blog, where we choose to walk can have a profound, positive impact on not just our physical fitness and health, but our mental health as well. The notion of seeking out “green space”, be it countryside if we have the time and access, or even parks and green areas within our ever-expanding urban landscapes can do so much to enhance the benefits to ourselves.
Walking in the country and “green spaces” allows urban dwellers to overcome the harmful effects of disconnection with nature, something also referred to as “Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD).
Consider “Blue space”
But there is also a growing area of study on the benefits of “blue space” which comprises of walks next to the sea, lakes, rivers and water features. Studies discovered that participants shown scenes containing water had the greatest positive effect than those without – this was consistent with both rural and “green space” as well as urban environments.
Another study, of UK consensus data, showed that individuals living nearer the coast reported significantly better general and mental health. Over and above the effects “Green space”. Whether this was down to the ‘bracing sea air’, the coastal views, or the sounds of waves lapping the beach is unknown. Perhaps all of them, but it would seem that since ancient times, civilisations have sought water as a means to heal both the body and mind.
In his book Blue Mind, Wallace J Nichols, a Marine Biologist by profession, claims that we all have an innate affinity with water hardwired into our DNA, which is triggered whenever we are in, on or near water, inducing “a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment”
Quite the statement. But he backs this up with the discussion on how advances in measuring neural activity is demonstrating how our brains, in fact, react positively to water – and how close proximity to it induces a state of calm and an almost meditative state.
In a TED Talk, Julian Treasure explains how the sounds of waves hitting the shore can have a big physiological effect on our bodies, positively affecting our hormones, breathing and heart rate. Gentle waves lapping the shore are roughly in time with our breathing when asleep (approximately 12 cycles per minute) and so this sound resonates in us with deep rest, we also hold a strong association with this sound of being on holiday and stress-free.
And if you still need convincing, then consider the variables relating to the physical benefits – a study shows that walking on soft dry sand requires roughly 2.5 times more energy compared to walking on pavement, and due to its natural shock-absorbing properties, far more forgiving on the joints – so it makes for more demand on the muscles (meaning heaps more calories burnt) without the nasty side effects. Win-win.
A beach, a few miles of walking and the benefits to our mind and body are fantastic. And the coast is what? An hour from London? And if that is still that bit too far, don’t forget that similar benefits can be gained walking near a river, lake, or water feature – walk around Hyde Park’s Serpentine or long the Thames path anyone?
Get out on Dem dar hills!
Different geography and geology maybe, but many of the benefits to be had at the beach can be gained venturing out into hills of Britain – look hard enough and there are plenty of waterfalls a mere incline away, ticking the “Blue Zone” box, as well as the cardiovascular benefits and calorie burning inferno induced from defying gravity as well as the ultimate incentive; wonderful vistas of our amazing British countryside – well, it beats the hell out of treadmills don’t you think?
On a good day, many of the hills and mountains of Snowdonia, for example, offer wonderful views out to sea; more reason to book that walking weekend!
And if you think the benefits stop there, then consider these findings from an Austrian study into the health benefits of walking uphill (which seems obvious) and downhill (perhaps less obvious). Interestingly, this study found that walking downhill did a better job of improving glucose tolerance (good news in the fight against diabetes), and was just as good as walking uphill for lowering bad cholesterol (Low Density Lipoproteins, or LDL for short). Uphill hiking was much better when it came to lowering triglycerides (blood fats), but walking downhill still helped to lower them (6.8% reduction from walking downhill compared to 11% walking up).
Prior to the study, the scientists’ assumptions were that walking downhill would have little, if any positive health benefits. But it is thought that contractions of the muscles caused by walking either way on the slope induce such benefits. So now you have no excuse!
A study in 2017 resulted in findings somewhat to the contrary of the 2004 Austrian study, insofar that glucose intolerance was much more improved in uphill hikers, but as they mention in their conclusions – given the extra energy expenditure required to get up hills, as well as the increased fitness levels of necessary by individual, something that may cause a barrier to participation – the main message was that both directions of hiking have benefits. So, transport up if needs be, grab that amazing view of God’s own country, and then enjoy the walk back down.
And if hills aren’t exactly convenient for you when you feel the need to feel the burn, then consider the fact that stairs (both up and down) done on a regular basis can induce similar results. So, no mountains, lederhosen or Meerschaum pipe required!
Go ‘tribal’, enjoy the social
A somewhat contentious option, as so many of us find walking ‘solo’ is of huge benefit to the mind, let alone the body - getting away from it all and everyone else besides. As we discussed in our last blog – walking alone, especially in more rural environs offers us the benefits of cognitively processing many of our thoughts, not least the negative ones, having the effect of reducing neural activity in a part of our brain called the subgenal pre-frontal cortex - linked to repetitive thoughts focussed on negative emotions when highly active, as well as helping the Amygdala; our body’s ‘danger sensor’ to have a break from it all too.
In his book Walking your blues away, Thom Hartmann describes how walking invokes something called bi-lateral movement, which, if we learn to walk consciously, can become a means of therapy for mental health problems as well as a means to achieve mental wellness – by walking, we engage both sides of the brain to cognitively process thoughts and experiences both rationally and emotionally and therefore better avoid negative ‘brain patterning’.
So, there are plenty of benefits to be had getting out there for a walk on your own. Each to their own. But it isn’t for everyone, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as other studies demonstrate the benefits of walking with others.
One factor that came up in a number of studies was staying power – participant’s adherence; continuing to turn up again and again and stick with it, was reported as a notable benefit of joining a walk group. There is also, obviously, the social benefits of having a good natter on your travels, the benefit of someone else stressing over navigating the route (which you can revisit on your own at a later date), and for many of us, the very sad fact of life that there is indeed safety in numbers.
But above all, findings demonstrated a significant benefit on our mental and emotional health that take the benefits above and beyond just physical fitness and health. After all, as Aristotle said, we are social animals.
So, plenty of ‘tweeks’ and ideas for your future walks, plenty of days of summer left to try the above hours in, plenty of places to try out and gain benefit from. We hope you find that ‘perfect walk’ sometime soon.
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