In London, 2015, I was almost consumed by my dissertation. The idea of a social scene for Masters students was working together at the library till late at night and drinking cups of coffee. The days and sleepless nights were all about citations, sources, bibliography and structuring arguments.
Yet, if there was one thing that gave me much relief, it was a 10- to 20-minute walk, every couple of hours. As the submission date grew nearer, the walks became a lot more frequent. These breaks ranged from calming strolls through the university gardens that were filled with flowers, or brisk walks around the campus, listening to music. As I walked more, I could think more clearly.
The blend of music, walks and Nature worked like magic. The phrase ‘stop and smell the roses’ began to make a lot more sense, too. When I returned to my desk, it was easier to write. The words flowed a lot more and didn’t seem so knotted. Seven years later, the practice continues.
That’s what walking can do. It’s as if your mind is getting a breath of fresh air too.
While it is acknowledged that walking is healthy for the body, it is also empowering for the mind and soul. While walking, our attention is less fragmented and far more focused, says Christine Kritzas, counselling psychologist, The LightHouse Arabia. “We get into this meditative state, which helps to quieten the mind. We are also more aware of our internal world. We become observers of our own thoughts and feelings while walking,” she elaborates further.
Sometimes, for a good walk, you need to unburden yourself from technology for a while. Kritzas emphasises on the importance of ‘wireless walking’, where we are free of any technology for those few minutes. It’s an opportunity to engage in reflective practice, where we can look back at past situations with a new awareness.
Both brisk and a moderately-paced walk are beneficial for a person. While a slower walk is healthy for the mind, a quick walk has physical implications too. “There is a positive correlation between the intensity of exercise and our overall fitness levels. Brisk walking can stabilise blood sugar levels as well as lower our blood pressure,” says Kritzas. Brisk walking can also help in reducing the risk of dementia, heart disease, cancer and death.
What are the benefits of walking?
The phrase ‘take a walk’ isn’t intended casually; there’s actually some wisdom attached to it. By changing your physical environment, you can see a shift in your mental state.
For UAE-based author Purva Grover, walking is about just ‘switching off’ from all the noise in the world. “If you are writing a story, you need that time to speak to the characters in your story. So you need that time to just brainstorm with yourself,” she says, explaining why she chose to go for frequent walks. “I started the practice to basically just switch off from all the sounds from the world. I wanted to just stop and observe everything around me, figuratively stop and smell the roses.”
We get into this meditative state, which helps to quieten the mind. We are also more aware of our internal world. We become observers of our own thoughts and feelings while walking
These walks contributed to her writing career, she says. “My first book was a result of one of those walks,” elaborates Grover. During one of the walks, her keen observations of the trees around her acted as material for her book, as she says. Her book The Trees Told Me Sir focuses on the idea that we are all surrounded by trees, but we don’t take cognizance of them. “Within that one walk, I started observing all the trees around me carefully. I realised that I have grown up around trees but never noticed their barks carefully before. So, after that, I found out twelve stories worth of material,” adds Grover.
Clearly, the creative juices flow, after a good walk. Kritzas complements this point and says, “It fuels creativity. Walking in Nature leads to de-focused attention, which in turn allows our minds to wander, bringing forth creative insights,” she adds. It’s also a ‘brain booster’, adds Kritzas, as it increases a dopamine-triggering chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This is linked to cognitive improvement and the alleviation of anxiety and depression.
There’s a deeper scientific explanation behind this mood enhancement. Bushra Khan,a Dubai-based mental health coach from Wellth, a health and wellness centre, breaks it down further. “Walking increases oxygen flow to the brain and improves blood circulation. This improves cognitive function, productivity, creativity, and memory,” she explains.
Moreover, it helps your overall mood. There’s a strong chance you’ll feel a lot happier. “It releases endorphins into our bodies on a regular basis, which can help to improve our mood, increase motivation, and enhance creativity and productivity,” explains Khan. This break from our daily routines also helps in reducing stress and improving mental clarity. The benefits are plenty, including better and improved sleep patterns, a boost in confidence levels and self-esteem.
Music and social interactions during walks
Both music and good company, can ensure a good walk.
Most of us enjoy listening to music while working out. Music, especially fast-paced songs can give your senses a good kick. We enjoy singing along and taking note of the lyrics. It makes exercising more fun, rather than just a routine chore.
Kritzas explains this point further, “It can increase your walking speed, and improve your exercise performance. Moreover, when we listen to inspiring lyrics, we lose track of time. Before we know it, we have increased the duration of our exercise session,” she says. Our bodies release more dopamine when we listen to our favourite songs, she explains.
Walking releases endorphins into our bodies on a regular basis, which can help to improve our mood, increase motivation, and enhance creativity and productivity
Having someone accompany you on these walks is equally beneficial too. You can talk, run ideas with the other, express what you’re feeling too, says Khan. Moreover, when overwhelmed, you have someone to share your feelings with. “These walks reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. It can provide opportunities to connect, share experiences, and build relationships.” We feel a sense of connection with loved ones, and this helps in reducing stress further. It deepens our connection with another person.
However, there are many who prefer to have complete silence when on a walk. Grover doesn’t wish for any music or companionship on a walk. “I’ve noticed people listening to music and a podcast. But for me, it was the complete opposite. Throughout the day, there were so many sounds in my head, I looked forward to not listening to any extra sounds. I didn’t want to multi-task on a walk. We are anyway multi-tasking all the time. We need that time to switch off,” she explains.
How walking helps your psychological well-being, as per the experts
• It reduces stress and anxiety
• It fuels creativity
• It improves cognitive functioning and memory
• It helps in improving sleep routine
• It enhances overall mood
• It gives your brain a boost, and it increases a dopamine-triggering chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is linked to cognitive improvement and the alleviation of anxiety and depression.