Is walking our superpower in this time of anxiety?

On Mental Health Awareness Week our Development Officer Nicole Bell reflects on the wonders of walking at a stressful time

Nicole Bell guiding walkers at the 2019 The Big Fit Walk in Ayr

Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara hit the headlines last year declaring walking as a superpower; but he couldn’t have predicted just how important the wonder of walking would become in 2020…

The last 9 weeks have been an anxious time for all of us.

Like many, for me, the start of this surreal chapter was dominated by frantically consuming as much news as I could, from as many sources possible, trying to make sense of what could possibly happen next. I know from speaking to family, friends and colleagues I was far from alone. Two months later, while we’re no longer glued to the news, there’s no denying this ‘new normal’ is strange for all of us.

While some may now feel that we have come to terms with this bizarre ‘normal’, for many it involves ongoing and understandable anxiety on a backdrop of disrupted routines, reduced social networks and concerns for our own health and the health of those around us. So, what can we do to help us cope?

As a passionate believer in the transformative impact physical activity can have on our mental wellbeing, and member of Paths for All’s staff to boot, I doubt I will surprise anyone by emphatically declaring the answer as ‘walk!’. However, with the Government’s endorsement of the importance of physical activity forming a key part of their response to the virus, a growing number of us stepping out on our local paths for exercise, and with Mental Health Awareness Week falling during National Walking Month (!), there seems no more relevant time to remind ourselves what walking can do for our mental health – and how we can make the most of this superpower – than now.

The established short-term benefits of walking on mental wellbeing are more relevant than ever – we know a simple walk has the power to boost mood, alleviate stress, reduce anxiety and improve our sleep.

We also know those who make the time to ‘notice nature’ during time outside – watching birdlife, listening to birdsong, smelling wildflowers – are likely to feel happier and that life is more worthwhile. In the middle of this lockdown, though, getting out to walk doesn’t just offer these benefits – it can provide the opportunity to create structure and a sense of routine at a time when the world can feel like it’s upside down.

My partner and I have been going for evening walks, or cycles, once our working days are over to give us a sense of normality. With the recent change in guidance allowing for more exercise – I can now up my steps by taking my usual lunchtime walk while working from home, too. My mum has been getting her day off to a good start by going for an early morning stroll. Colleagues are sharing photos of new discoveries on their ‘mini-adventures’ as we take on our Spring Step Count Challenge close to home. 

In-keeping with this year’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Week, it seems walking is the ‘kindness’ we can show ourselves at this time – offering time away from the four walls, an opportunity to see things a little differently, and providing a sense of freedom which might otherwise feel lacking. 

While some have been able to delight in finding new local paths to explore, this hasn’t been the case for everyone, and I know a few reading this may be wondering how they can look after their mental wellbeing, while keeping things interesting, on their familiar routes or at home. I thoroughly recommend taking some time out with Edith Bowman. In our new Mind to Walk podcast, you will be gently guided through a walk which will bring your mind into the present, making you more mindful, and crucially helping you to relax. You can also choose to have Edith’s familiar voice take you through a 6-minute body awareness session which can calm your thoughts whether inside or outside. Our wonderful artist in residence, Alec Finlay, has also created a COVID-19 Creative Toolkit designed to help us connect with nature in a new way at this time – easing the anxiety we all feel through creative means – whether we are at home or outdoors. 

At Paths for All, we are very fortunate that our world of work immerses us in the wonder of walking and getting active outdoors. I am privileged to regularly hear very personal accounts of how a simple walk can transform lives even when people are really struggling.  I feel incredibly passionately that the power of a humble walk should not be forgotten – and particularly not now.

Yes, these are without doubt anxiety-inducing times to live through, but with a few steps, we could perhaps all feel closer to our superpower.

If you are looking for mental health and wellbeing support at this time, you may find the following resources and sources of support useful:

 

 

 


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