Oh, warm weather, how I love you! It’s a time for renewal and shedding of outer, heavy clothing. It’s the season to enjoy the longer days and feel the healing warmth of the sun on our bodies. Take in deep breathes of fresh air while luxuriating in the wonders of floral aromas, colors of blossoming flowers and trees, baby birds tweeting, and quiet relax.
Go ahead, be skeptical. You have a right. I realize the above may sound like a very nice, albeit rather impractical fantasy, especially if you live in a city, are feeling stressed and believe you can’t possibly make time to walk in nature– not even over the weekend. Well, I live in New York City in the borough of Manhattan and I say, “It can be done. We can be in the outdoors, be one with nature and reap its many benefits.”
So, just what are the benefits of walking in nature? I enjoy walking in my neighborhood park all year round, but I especially love being in nature in the Spring. I feel at peace being surrounded by trees, bushes, plants, rocks, grass, dirt and small animals. It lifts my spirits and gives me renewed energy. Turns out, the feelings I derive being in nature aren’t just unique to me. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, taking group nature walks is associated with decreased depression, improved well-being and mental health, and lowered perceived stress.1
Walking itself contributes to cardiovascular health, reduced stress, improved mood and self-esteem, healthy weight, and strengthened bones.2 It can also help us to re-connect to a more authentic state of embodiment. Being more mindfully present and actually feeling ourselves in our bodies is a lost, yet important, sensation.
Nature’s Benefits: According to Mark Sisson in The Primal Connection, “Our genes predispose us to prefer the sights, smells, sounds, and sensations of the wide-open savanna, amid the chirping birds, the feel of the rain, and the scent of vegetation….Water, (an ocean, river or lake), restores our brain and body too.3 Moreover, the combination of walking and being outside in green spaces, may put the brain into a meditative state, allowing us to pay attention to the world around, while creating the calmness needed for reflection. It’s in this calm, quiet reflective state where our creativity can flourish.4
This of course all sounds terrific, but you may be still thinking, “I don’t have time!!!” While this may be true to some extent, your thoughts may actually be embellished and made bigger than life by the stress hormone, cortisol. When we’re stressed, or in the sympathetic nervous state, cortisol is released. Here’s the kicker: one of the side effects of cortisol is to feel as though you don’t have enough time! Take a deep breath and release slowly. You might find that walking in nature may be the very thing to help you to feel more relaxed, less stressed and reduce that “I have no time” feeling.
And if the benefits of walking in nature aren’t convincing enough just yet for you to take up outdoor walking, here’s something else to consider. Marc David, author of the Slow Down Diet, reports that replacing low-level chronic stress with the relaxation response, (as happen during nature walks), will reduce the same cortisol levels associated with weight gain, abdominal obesity, and one’s very ability to lose weight and build muscle.5
Lastly, there are various benefits to walking alone, with your dog, as well as walking in groups. Walking alone or with your dog of course can be very spontaneous and the destination, walking speed, walk duration, etc. are all up to you. Of course, moving and being one with nature offers you all the advantages already noted above.
On the other hand, walking with others brings the advantage of feeling less isolated, (if that’s how you’re feeling). It provides an opportunity for social connection by being with others on the walk and then through possible creation of post-walk friendships, even casual, and future partnership, (if that’s an interest).
If you’re not sure how to find a nearby walking group, try googling www.meetup.com. Once on the Meetup website, write in the topic for which you have an interest, i.e., group walking, nature walks, hiking, etc. You’ll probably be amazed at the number of varying Meetup groups that pop up under those subjects. Then give it a whirl.
Walking outside in nature alone or with others is an awesome way to feel renewed, less stressed, healthier, empowered and happier. Spring is here. Go out and cheer!
1. “Examining group walks in nature and multiple aspects of well-being: A large scale study,” Ecopsychology, DOI: 10. 1089/eco.2014.0027
2. C. Gregoire, “Taking a Walk in Nature Could be the Best Thing You do for Your Mood all Day,” The Huffington Post, (9/23/2014).
3. M. Sisson, The Primal Connection: Follow Your Genetic Blueprint to Health and Happiness (Malibu, CA: Primal Blueprint Publishing, 2013): 108-113.
4. D.Ward,”5Ways Walking in Nature Benefits Sensitive People,” Psychology Today (blog: April 26, 2014). http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sense-and-sensitivity/201404/5-ways-walking-in-nature-benefits-sensitive-people.
5. M. David, The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy & Weight Loss (Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press,2005): 20-21.