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Walking in the Woods: Restoring the mind-body balance

Walking for me, is akin to therapy. You have recently read about the benefits of nature and of nature soundscape. As a counselling psychologist, I am also interested to see how walking in nature could potentially benefit my clients to enhance not only their physical but also mental well-being.

Robert Frost’s iconic poem of two roads diverging in a yellow wood stirs up images of the romanticism associated with walking. But it also points out the benefits of contemplation that walking offers us. We live in a world where we have access to state-of-the-art facilities for exercising our bodies. We have gyms, pools, courts for playing a variety of sports, and a host of classes including yoga and dance. Undoubtedly, while these help our bodies as well as our minds, the impact of walking, especially amidst nature is probably more profound, offering something more. When we talk about walking in nature, we are talking of a creative synthesis. The benefits of walking and of being in nature collide and become more than the sum of the individual parts.

So, what is this unique and specific benefit that we are exploring here? Walking in nature fosters mental vitality. Daily action and thinking wear us out mentally. It saps into our mental vitality, which is the essence of creativity, mental effectiveness, and sound action.

Nuances of Attention

In an article exploring the benefits of walking in nature, Raymond De Young addresses how mental vitality can be restored without much effort. This is important for us since, in the world we inhabit, we are frantically searching for more time as we rush about our schedules. The answer, he says, lies in the concept of attention.

While we know about "directed attention" that requires mental effort on our part, there is another form of attention, that William James called "fascination", which is innate. Directed Attention Fatigue is what happens when we feel mentally tired. While the ability to direct ou attention is crucial to productivity and to our very existence as we go about our lives, it is fascination that comes to our rescue when we experience mental fatigue.

Today, research is showing us what philosophers of the past knew. Cal Newport, the author of the book Deep Work elaborates on the concept of the outside office, which holds secrets of more deep and intense productivity. As he mentions in his book, one of the activities that often provides "solutions" or "breakthrough ideas" for certain problems is taking a long walk amidst nature on a well-known route. He uses the "attention-restoration" theory to explain this phenomenon in part.

The Attention-Restoration Theory was proposed by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan in The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. They proposed that there were four stages of attention on the journey towards restoration. Firstly, there is a need to be away and clear existing thoughts. In the context of nature, it promotes a chance to be away and "clear the head" by letting thoughts flow. Next, there is space for recovery from the need to pay "directed attention". Third, the mind is open to soft fascination which is where being in nature comes in most strongly. Finally, there is the scope of reflection and complete restoration.

One of the environments that provide us with this "soft fascination" much required for restoration is nature. The role of nature in restorative settings is historically established. Great thinkers like Thoreau, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and more were known to be routine walkers. We need less directed attention to maintain our interactions within a natural setting. This is why walking in nature provides scope for restoration and, at the same time, the physical benefits of walking synthesise with the mental benefits of being in nature, to give us the combined benefits of green exercise.

Green Exercise

Green exercise, defined as physical activity in natural settings, may well be the path forward for holistic wellbeing. Jules Pretty and colleagues studied the mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise and found that it led to improved blood pressure as well as self-esteem and mood, leading the researchers to conclude that it was indeed a "tonic" for coping and resilience. Resilience, put very simply, is the ability to bounce back from any kind of setback or trauma. While it is an innate ability, often called "ordinary magic", it is also true that several environmental factors have a role to play in how resilient a person is.

A study by Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan in 2008 measured the cognitive benefits of walking in nature, thus providing support for the attention restoration theory and validating a phenomenon that people have been experiencing since time immemorial. The researchers found that subjects taking a walking route through a tree-lined arboretum separated from traffic performed significantly better at mental tasks (such as an exercise in backward digit span and an attention network task) than another group of subjects who walked on a route of similar length in the same area but without the same greenery. In other words, an improvement in directed attention abilities was seen in the group walking along the natural route.

Urban environments capture attention more dramatically and require more directed attention, contrasting the way the interesting stimuli in nature catches our attention. This allows for the restoration of the cognitive faculties. For instance, imagine that you are walking in a tree-lined park. You don’t walk with the aim of looking for something, and yet, there are stimuli that will gently seek your attention. Some examples include the colours of flowers, the movement of butterflies, the sound of birds, the feel of the grass, or the fresh fragrance of the pure air. This gives the mind a rest from directed attention and thereby reduces cognitive fatigue. But most importantly, the sheer diversity of the exposure leads the mind gently to stretch itself and break patterns, and engage in more fluid thought, breaking rigidity.

A lot has been achieved on a long walk! A description of the history of Eye-Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) traces the birth of this evidence-based intervention for trauma, to a long walk. Francine Shapiro (1987), the originator of the technique, was on a walk in a park when she noticed the therapeutic and desensitising impact of rapid eye movements. As the walk ended, she noticed a decrease in the negative emotion associated with the memory. Today, EMDR is used by trained practitioners as a reliable intervention to deal with traumatic memories. And to think, it was a simple walk amidst nature that started it all!

A Practical Guide

Having established the argument for walking in nature to foster better wellbeing, here are some tips that will help optimise the process:

  • Choose a couple of routes or locations that will offer you the opportunity for soft fascination, and yet a familiar and safe environment. Walking on planned nature-filled routes reduces the attentional demands of navigating and yet provides the restorative benefits of nature. Both quiet fascination and deep reflection can be fostered in these walks.

  • Start with solitary walking as it may be more restorative than walking with someone. However, if the walking companion is also engaged in nature and the conversation does not demand directed attention beyond a point, then it may work.

  • Use all senses to engage in nature as you walk. Listen to the sound of the birds, feel the freshness of the breeze, smell the fragrance of the flowers. For restoration, the mind must interact with the physicality of the setting.

  • Electronic gadgets must not disrupt the walk in nature.

  • Multitasking is also not recommended.

  • A daily walk in nature is helpful. Also, aim for long weekly walks and a yearly break to take in nature!

Perhaps the overarching message of this essay is best described in the words of Professor De Young, "Thus, a prescription for enhancing mental vitality is simply to walk, to walk outside, to walk regularly, and to walk surrounded by and mindful of everyday nature".


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