Walking for Wellbeing
Walking every day helps with my mental health.
People didn't talk about mental health and wellbeing nearly enough.
Mental health is something incredibly important to me. I've struggled to manage my own headspace for years and have experienced first hand the dangers of not keeping it in check. Shortly after I turned 14, my brother, who had fought with the demons of his own mental health for years decided to take his own life. To say it was a difficult time would be an understatement. No one is really sure why he chose to do so, but I'm almost sure he felt he had no other choice. What I am certain of is that no one knew how dark his thoughts were getting. Back then (this was 2005) people didn't talk about mental health and wellbeing nearly enough. I don't think we've shifted far enough in the other direction yet, but there's definitely momentum. In today's post, I'd like to add some of my energy to that momentum by discussing how I manage my mental health through walking.
Walking is Meditative
There's something meditative about putting one foot in front of the other. There's a rhythm to it. The natural pace of your feet hitting the pavement is like a metronome calibrated just for you. There's control there. With that control comes the headspace many of us struggle to find when we're at work, or at home, or frankly just being around others. It's the simplicity of walking that lends itself so well to mental wellbeing. The act itself doesn't take up much mental capacity like other modes of transport do, it frees the mind.
Walking to work has given me 2 hours a day to collect my thoughts and make sense of them. If I'm angry, or worried, or fearful of something, the walk to work provides me with an opportunity to assess those feelings and disarm them. Even if I don’t want to spend too much time in my head to consider thoughts I can spend the time appreciating my surroundings. It’s time I can spend being mindful and discovering the wonders of the immediate world around me. It does take time to walk, but it’s time well spent.
Prescribing the Outdoors
Spending time in natural environments, even within urban settings, has been shown to have a positive impact on a person's mental wellbeing. In January 2018, the journal BioScience included a paper by Andrea Mechelli and his colleagues which presented findings on the effects of nature on mental wellbeing. The study concluded that "exposure to natural features including trees, the sky, and birdsong has a time-lasting beneficial impact on momentary mental well-being". Furthermore, the findings suggest that time spent outdoors can have a more significant impact on those individuals who are more likely to develop mental illnesses, e.g. addiction.
What I found interesting about this study was that the results indicate that spending time outdoors has a lasting effect on mental wellbeing, i.e. the positive effects don't stop when the time outside stops. While the authors acknowledge their study cannot be said to be representative of the UK as a whole, they argue (and I would agree) that their data is more accurate as it's captured real-time and does not rely on a participant recalling how they felt/where they were after the fact. To achieve this, the study utilised a mobile app to ask participants to record the type of environment they found themselves in as well as their perceived mental state. In any case, the results are reassuring and certainly confirm my experience over the last few months. Walking among nature, even within in a busy city like Edinburgh, has been transformative.
In Shetland, Doctors have been given authorisation to even prescribe time outdoors. Coined 'nature prescriptions', they are intended to treat diabetes, heart disease, stress, and mental illness. I think this is a beautiful idea. I saught counselling just over a year ago and was delighted to find a counsellor who prefers to have sessions outside. For an hour a fortnight we manage 2 laps Edinburgh’s Meadows, no matter the weather. At the end of each session, I find myself feeling at ease with my thoughts and feelings. It's been a massively worthwhile investment.
Appreciate What’s Around You
I think it’s easy these days for people to feel resentment or dislike for the environment we find ourselves in. The city I live in, Edinburgh, isn’t perfect. There’s a lot of litter, there’s too much car traffic, and for better or worse for what seems like an ever longer part of the year it hosts numerous festivals that do make some residents feel like they are afterthoughts in the place they call home. I like many others harboured anger. I nurtured negativity and fed it the lousy mood my daily commute would give me. Until one day I decided to walk. My motives were environmental, but now one of my main drivers is a deep appreciation for the world around me. Slowing down to a walking pace has brought me endless joy. It's brought me closer to my city than I ever thought was possible. Most of all, walking has provided me with stability and mental wellbeing. I hope you take the time to slow down and appreciate the world around you too. I hope you find joy when you walk for wellbeing.
Photos taken on my wanders and commutes to work, more found at: https://instagram.com/beardoptics
Next week I’ll be publishing the first instalment in my 51 part series on Edinburgh’s Cycle Hire scheme announced last week, where I’ll be exploring around the St Andrews House station beside Jacob’s Ladder.
Thanks for reading.
p.s. if you’re struggling with mental health issues, look for someone to talk to, it really does help. I found my councillor at https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/ if it’s an emergency and you need someone now, reach out to the Samaritans (https://www.samaritans.org/scotland/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/).
 Ioannis Bakolis, Ryan Hammoud, Michael Smythe, Johanna Gibbons, Neil Davidson, Stefania Tognin, Andrea Mechelli, Urban Mind: Using Smartphone Technologies to Investigate the Impact of Nature on Mental Well-Being in Real Time, BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 2, February 2018, Pages 134–145, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix149