Walking regularly can have a significant and positive impact on our overall health and well-being and when performed in a natural environment can promote better physical and psychological health. Walking in natural environments such as coastal paths, trails, parks and other green spaces has been shown to not only boost physical health but can also enhance psychological health. Known as green exercise, research shows that walking in a natural environment promotes mental well-being, can reduce stress, can boost immunity and can increase our ability to concentrate and think with greater clarity. Studies also show that people are more likely to walk and be physically active when they have easily accessible green spaces. This is in comparison to exercising within an urban environment.
In one study, groups of university students walked through either a forest or through an urban city landscape. Saliva samples were taken from the students before and after each of the walks and indicated that when walking through a forest, the level of the body’s stress hormone, cortisol, was reduced more than when compared to walking through a city. This research is supported by a further study which examined electroencephalogram (EEG) readings which measure brain activity. EEG activity was measured as research subjects walked through a busy commercial site, a shopping district and a natural green area. Brain activity when walking showed that participants had a far greater reduction in tension and stress and felt calmer and more relaxed when walking through a green and natural environment. It is therefore evident that being exposed to nature when walking helps to promote a lower level of both physical and mental stress when compared to walking in more urban environments.
Meanwhile, walking in nature can positively affect mood and memory. Participants with moderate to severe depression showed a significant improvement in mood and short term memory following a walk within a natural environment, as compared to a walk within a city. It is notable that for children affected by ADHD, attention span can increase following a walk in a park when compared to a walk of equal duration in an urban environment. Exposure to nature also serves to promote and stimulate mental acuity, enhancing creativity and the ability to problem solve.
For those wishing to commence a regular exercise routine, research shows that a routine is more likely to last if performed outdoors. Studies show that people who exercise regularly within a natural setting may be more likely to engage in moderate to vigorous activity whilst those who exercise outdoors have a greater desire and intent to repeat their activity, as opposed to those who exercise on a treadmill.
It is evident, that whether walking in a natural or urban environment, walking can result in both physical and mental benefits. However, choosing to walk in leafy, green areas and exposure to nature further enhances these benefits meaning that better health might be as easy as a walk in the park.