Health Trees & Forests

Giant Steps

Photo by R. Last.

Giant steps: why walking in nature is good for mind, body and soul: Studies of walking’s benefits date back to the 1950s, with the last decade of research preoccupied with the rise of “10,000 steps a day” challenges and the use of pedometers and activity trackers. What they tell us is that while all these tools urge us towards lofty step counts, there isn’t exactly a magic number to achieve. The figure 10,000 was dreamed up as part of a 1960s pedometer marketing campaign in Japan, and a recent study indicates that half that amount can be beneficial, with a plateau in benefits after about 7,500 steps. The NHS advises that just 10 minutes of brisk walking daily makes a difference. For an activity many of us do daily without thinking, this seems remarkable, but it’s estimated that when walking over half our body’s muscle mass is engaged. And the benefits of even a moderate pace – around three miles an hour – range from improved cardiovascular health, like lower blood pressure, to better glucose metabolism, musculoskeletal health, and mental wellbeing. However, researchers distinguish between the passive steps we take going about our lives doing things like food shopping and errands (termed “secondary purpose walking”) and the act of actually going for a walk, which was the thing I really missed. On a walk, when we’ve laced our boots a bit more intentionally, the benefits reach beyond a bit of exercise, and where we choose to walk can make a big difference. There is a growing swathe of research to back up the idea that being in nature improves not simply mental but physical health. Most studies highlight a 1984 study by Roger Ulrich, a professor of healthcare architecture who examined whether hospital patients with a view of nature recovered faster, and better, than those who didn’t. But as the contemporary American philosopher, Arnold Berleant, argues, it is when we’re actually moving through a landscape, rather than treating it simply as scenery, that we most fully connect with a place and ignite all our senses. Berleant uses the term “aesthetic engagement”, but it needn’t be quite so lofty: A walk along the river might count, or perhaps time spent practising shinrin-yoku (forest bathing), really attending to the details of the trees, the leaves, the smells and the sounds. Over the past 20 years, research into the benefits of this kind of outdoor exercise has boomed: looking at the impact of, say, free gyms in parks or the improvement to learning outcomes for students walking in the woods. In one of the earliest studies, researchers in 2005 found that while walking or jogging improved blood pressure and mental health, viewing pleasant rural and urban scenes while doing so had a better impact on wider health and self-esteem than exercising on its own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s