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How walking can improve your mental health


Wide angle shot of a rockpool close up, with the beach in the background, under a setting yellow sun
Marazion beach in the late afternoon

I spent the second half of October in far west Cornwall, in the pretty little town of Marazion, just down the road from Penzance. It’s one of my favourite places on Earth.


The changeable weather was pretty much as expected for autumn. Brisk and breezy, with slate grey clouds scudding across the sky, first threatening, then fiercely depositing heavy rain. Days of bright sunshine, the air feeling clinchingly crisp and clear.


So, apart from the rain, good weather for birding. Although, given the nature of our recent holidays down there, “birding” is a slight misnomer. More a case of walking interrupted by occasional looking through bins.


Standing on Marazion beach, you look south to the famous St Michael’s Mount, and you can watch the incoming tide quickly covering the causeway that connects the island to the mainland. Looking west, the beach sweeps towards the horizon in a huge arc all the way to Penzance, a scimitar where land and sea meet.


Most days we would go for a walk along the beach, trying to avoid the scattered crowds, their heads bowed into the wind, and admiring the windsurfers who were expertly skimming across the top of the rolling, white-topped waves.


Despite the disturbance, which seems intense at any time of year, there are always birds on the beach. They move around a lot to avoid the crowds and the dogs. But the waders always seem to find a relatively undisturbed spot somewhere. The gulls of course sometimes actively seek out human company. After all, we might have chips or leftover burger rolls to discard.


Hundreds of gulls casually ride the breeze, dipping low over the surf which crashes onto the stony beach. Large numbers of skittering, noisy Pied Wagtails feed amongst the seaweed until dusk’s dying light. I tried counting them one afternoon (a surprisingly difficult job) and got to about 200 before all the birds took off, heading for the reedbed to roost.


Two Oystercatchers facing left amongst some rocks on a sandy beach, with the sea in the background
Oystercatchers

And small flocks of waders – mostly Turnstone and Ringed Plover accompanied by a couple of Dunlin - frantically poke around the seaweed before being disturbed by dogs. They would then fly together at high speed, bunched together and low over the sea, before settling down again on the beach several hundred yards away. The Oystercatchers tend to prefer the rockier areas, particularly as the tide comes in.


We walked the same route several times, saw the same sights, and took comfort in the familiarity. We don’t live in Cornwall, but we felt a profound sense of happiness, being outdoors beneath big skies, and walking through a landscape that we love so much.


In short – walking and birding was, without a doubt, benefitting our mental health.


Close up of a Turnstone (a small wading bird) stood on a rocky beach
Turnstone

So - did you manage to get out for a walk this weekend?


There’s an increasing body of evidence demonstrating that walking outdoors benefits our mental health. The origins of these studies date back to the 1950s, ultimately leading to the recent preoccupation with walking “10,000 steps a day”, which is actually an arbitrary figure derived from a marketing campaign in the 1960s. 

A recent study showed that merely half that amount can be beneficial to us. Indeed, the NHS advises that a mere 10 minutes of brisk walking daily makes a positive difference. Considering that walking is an activity that many of us do every day without thinking, it’s heartening to know that such a basic activity can improve our physical and mental health.

But not all forms of walking are equal. Researchers distinguish between “passive” everyday walking, e.g. going shopping, and the act of purposefully going for a walk.


Driven by a sense of purpose, it’s this type of walking, when we lace our boots and don our coats, and step outside with a destination in mind, which is truly valuable.


A wide angle shot of a sandy beach at sunset, with the bright orange sun low on the horizon
Marazion beach at sunset, looking westward

But how does walking outside improve our mental health? 

Modern philosophers have argued that walking outside is the act of moving through the landscape rather than treating it as scenery. This relatively slow progress allows us to connect with place, triggering all our senses.

At this time of year, a walk through a woodland will smell earthy, damp, almost primeval. The branches are bare, and the floor is cushioned with soft brown and yellow leaves that have fallen over the previous few weeks. Sounds such as the barking of a deer, or the calls of crows flying over, seem to carry further through the air, and with greater resonance than in the summer. A bewildering variety of mushrooms and fungi push through the damp soil in clumps, or cling to fallen tree trunks.


We might not pay detailed attention to some – or all – of these things, but we still take note, subconsciously.


There’s still a part of our brain, a stubborn little node that somehow reaches back through countless generations, that recognises our vulnerability within a landscape, and that maintaining a connection to it is vital.

  

A study of walkers in Iceland in 2018 concluded that when facing times of stress, walking outdoors had a huge positive impact on mental wellbeing. And under periods of prolonged and ongoing stress, simply resting and looking at nature helped enormously.


You don’t have to search too hard on social media to see confirmation of this, outpourings of joy or wonder from people who have spotted a fox or witnessed a beautiful sunset. I frequently do this myself – mostly sunrises I’ve seen whilst out surveying. Glorious cloud formations washed through with a fierce orange colour, that give way to blue skies and wispy cirrus clouds.

Taking this thought a step further to its logical conclusion, current social science research indicates that spending time in nature also results in us developing “pro-environmental behaviours”. Listening to the birds, splashing around in a river, or watching the sun set – walking in nature is caring about nature.

Walking outside matters. We can clear our thoughts when outside, form a profound and inspiring connection with the landscape, and feel as though we’re being absorbed into something that’s much bigger than us – the rhythms of the natural world.


This is something that I feel whenever I’m out birding. Sometimes fleetingly, sometimes rather profoundly.

So if you can get out this weekend, or indeed at any time over the coming weeks, give it a go. Pay attention to tree branches swaying in the wind, flocks of arguing Rooks feeding in fields, or how the sun sets fire to a cold evening sky.


You won’t regret it.


A Curlew stood on a rocky shoreline
Curlew

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