Walking the Talk to Wellbeing
I recently met Satish Kumar, a world ambassador for walking, who in the 1960s embarked on an epic 8000-mile peace walk from Gandhi’s grave in Delhi to JFK’s in Washington DC. His description of walking as an ‘antidote to depression’ really chimes with me having walked my way back to happiness around my local park. Satish, the founder of Schumacher College and editor of Resurgence magazine, uses ‘flow’ to describe the benefits of walking. “When we are walking we are in movement but also in stillness. There is a dynamism. We are flowing like a river flows to become clean or how a flow of air keeps us fresh.” This reminds me of flow in positive psychology – the state of being engaged in an activity, which also has a quality of stillness that comes from being fully absorbed with time seemingly standing still.
The benefits of physical activity for mental health are well-known but for some people the word ‘exercise’ is off-putting, summoning up images of sweaty discomfort. Walking is a gentle form of exercise that has the advantage of getting you into the great outdoors. Researchers at the University of Stirling have demonstrated that walking is an effective intervention for depression and has an effect similar to other more vigorous forms of exercise. A team at the University of Essex has been studying ‘green exercise’ – physical activities in nature for a decade now. Their research suggests that as little as 5 minutes of green exercise is enough to boost mood and self-esteem. Do it close to water, such as a river, lake or sea and you will experience the greatest improvement in mood. With depression it isn’t only the high intensity physical activities that have a positive impact in reducing symptoms, the less strenuous activity of walking also has benefits. One meta-analysis of green exercise shows that improvements in self-esteem decline with growing intensity of activity, which is a plus for those of us who favour a milder form of exercise.
One of beauties of walking is that it suits those who like to go slow. I once joined a walking trip in the Himalayas. We fell into two groups with the fast pack conquering the hills in their race to get to the next camp. I was one of the slow group and we ambled our way along the tracks slowing down to savour the natural beauty and chat to the locals and each other. Walking facilitates savouring, a key route to positive emotions and connections to others. As Satish Kumar puts it “walking brings connection, not only with nature herself with every step you take, but with your own nature and with your companions… It is the best food for the soul.”
Walking as an intervention is not only for personal well-being, it is also making its way into the workplace as a business tool. If I feel stuck on an issue I will problem-solve by going for a walk. The act of moving physically seems to get things shifting mentally too. ‘Solvitur ambulando’ is a Latin phrase which means it is solved by walking. Walking leads to positive emotions, which follow the broaden & build theory and enable us to think in creative, flexible and productive ways.
Executive coach and fellow positive psychologist Fiona Parashar, combines coaching with walking in her coaching intensives in and around the heritage city of Bath. “I always take my clients for a walk come rain or shine as an integral part of our Vision Days”, she says. “This 1:1 shoulder to shoulder walk deepens relationship and dialogue. Coaching whilst walking enables the client to have perspective and easy access to their memory and resilience bank.”
“Netwalking” is another clever concept, combining networking with walking. Rosalind Turner, who runs Netwalking SouthWest, brings together the business and well-being agendas, by taking people out of their workplace into a natural environment to build bonds and help teams ‘walk and talk’ their way through business challenges more creatively. “As we walk together we experience a more natural way of being, the formalities can fall away, our inhibitions relax and camaraderie between colleagues is fostered. With a lessening of direct eye contact we can feel less constrained, more able to open up and enjoy a deeper conversation. And of course, outside on the move, with the increase of oxygen to the brain, no screens to distract us and no four walls to shape or constrain our thinking, we can also experience a freeing of the mind to be and think more creatively. Walking can help with many of our workplace challenges.”
Flourishing is a combination of feeling good and functioning well and walking promotes both. It lifts the mood and enables creative thinking and problem-solving. I’ll give the final word to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard on the benefits of walking for wellbeing. “Everyday, I walk myself into a state of wellbeing & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
Images of Satish Kumar, Rosalind Turner & Bristol Walk Fest (c) Resurgence Magazine & (c) Bristol City Council.