The incredible mental health benefits of walking and hiking

LIFELINE: The mental health benefits of going on long walks
Walking can do wonders for your physical and mental health (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

Over lockdown many of us have got really in to walking because, well, there hasn’t been many other ways to fill the time.

Whether you’re just walking around the block, going on urban adventures, or venturing to the countryside to me among nature, walking and hiking has had an incredibly positive impact on our health – and not just our physical health.

Walking is an amazing tool to help your mental health. The simple act of going for a walk can help to reduce stress, regulate anxiety , and help you to feel more positive about the world around you.

So, it’s no wonder that many so many people are making walking a permanent fixture in their lives, even after lockdown ends.

Amy, who works in PR, left busy city life for the Lake District just before the first lockdown, and fell walking has been a godsend for her over this difficult year. ‘Being out walking helps me forget about “normal” life and is a sense of escapism,’ Amy tells Metro.co.uk.

‘I’m away from all of my problems, taking in the amazing scenery and it’s a chance to reset myself. I even try to get on a walk every lunch break, even if it’s only for 15 minutes, as the change of scenery, fresh air and being away from my desk, helps me de-stress and think more clearly.

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‘Walking has done so much for my mental health during lockdown and I don’t know what I’d have done if I didn’t take it up as a hobby.

‘I’m 100% going to keep this up post lockdown, I’m currently challenging myself to walk up all of the 214 wainwrights, having completed 45 so far. I can’t image my life now without getting out for walks and seeing the amazing countryside on my doorstep.’

Why is walking so good for mental health?

Studies have shown that walking helps your mental health in a number of key ways.

Firstly, walking outside can help to mitigate the symptoms of seasonal depression by increasing exposure to sunlight and vitamin D.

Another study found that outdoor walking boosts energy and vitality. And a Harvard medical study found that a brisk work can improve your focus and sharpen your reaction times.

Where you walk makes a difference as well, with proximity to nature and greenery having a more calming effect than walking in nature, and walking on a beach or near a body of water created significant improvements in mood.

Carmen Rendell is a walking therapist who takes clients on SoulWalks to help them relax and open up. ‘When I walk with clients, we never walk quickly. It’s about conscious walking,’ says Carmen.

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‘Where you can hear your breath, notice the speed your body wants to go, and instead slow down and listen to the birds, the wind, the waves, the leaves underfoot and even the planes above.’

Carmen says that how we walk and how we are in nature is very telling.

‘Can you slow down?,’ she asks her clients. ‘Why do you walk ahead of others? Do you have gratitude for the bees and birds around you? Do you stamp all over the ferns?

Female hikers walking in countryside
Walking can reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety (Picture: Getty)

‘We walk in all weather. That in itself reveals so much about our psyche. The ability to dress for appropriately for the weather and not neglect or under-nurture our bodies. To arrive wearing heels. To be okay with sitting on a fallen tree with your new white jeans on.

‘Whatever shows up, is there to highlight what’s really going on. And it’s great material for us to work with. It’s who we’ve known ourselves to be in the world.’

The impacts that hiking and walking have on the physiological and mental well being of people is well established within the psychological community.

Psychiatrist Dr Alexander Lapa, from Ocean Recovery Centre, adds: ‘We use walking as a therapy to help enhance the recovery process in those recovering from addiction at our rehabilitation clinic.

‘With many forms of exercise, endorphins are released and interact with the opiate receptors of the brain. This can reduce the perception of pain and increase a sense of wellbeing.

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Hiking and walking also offer a little bit more in the sense that they get blood pumping around the body efficiently, improve sleep, and also provide those participating with a sense of achievement.’

Carmen says walking improves our mental health in the following ways:

  • Quietens our nervous system and balances our internal systems keeping us fit and well.
  • Creates space for unconscious exploration so a great places to discover more about yourself.
  • Repairs our brains and lowers our blood pressure, reduces inflammation and aids digestion.
  • Reduces depressive disorders, anxiety and stress through the release of endorphins.
  • Allows re-connection to nature and its magic.
  • Improves creativity and problem solving.

‘Walking is not a new phenomena,’ adds Carmen.

‘It’s not just for old people. It’s not something which stops as you get older either. It keeps us young. It keeps us spirited. Connected. It has evolutionary origins from millions of years ago.

‘However, it’s only the more recent research in the west that reveals how the brain and nervous system performs the mechanical magic of balancing, and running out internal systems.

‘Whether it’s with a therapist, with friends or on your own, let’s continue to walk. Our lives are so very sedentary and can only increase the risks of disease to our mind, body and spirits. Trust our own intuition. Start with one the trusted one foot in front of the other.’

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How to get in to walking

Our Metro.co.uk Lifeline campaign returns this year after our hugely successful 2020 fundraising effort that saw Metro readers raise a whopping £60,000 for The Hygiene Bank. We’re offering you the chance to join us on another Covid-safe adventure and help raise money for a lifesaving charity – and it’s a great walking challenge to get involved in. The charity, Medical Detection Dogs , train dogs to sniff out deadly diseases such as cancer , coronavirus and Parkinson’s for a better chance of early detection.
we’ve organised not one, but two, Covid-safe fundraising hikes this summer in the beautiful countryside of Oxfordshire, just an hour outside of London.

Called Woof and Walk for MDD, one is a marathon distance trek for those who love the idea of lacing up their boots for a bit of a challenge, while the other walk is a 10k route especially for people with dogs and/or children to enjoy.

Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you.

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