Miriam Akhtar, MAPP from the University of East London, runs Positive Psychology Training, which provides courses, coaching, and communication in the science. Miriam is the author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression and the co-producer of The Happiness Training Plan. Twitter: @pospsychologist. Full bio.
Miriam's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.
I recently met Satish Kumar, a world ambassador for walking. In the 1960s, Satish embarked on an epic 8000-mile peace walk from Gandhi’s grave in Delhi to JFK’s grave in Arlington Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.
Not exercising is like taking depressants
~ Tal Ben-Shahar
Satish describes walking as an antidote to depression, which really chimes with me because I have walked my way back to happiness around my local park. Satish, the founder of Schumacher College and editor of Resurgence and Ecologist Magazine, uses the term 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 with being fully absorbed with time seeming to stand 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 out into the great outdoors.
For the last decade, a team at the University of Essex has been studying green exercise: physical activities in nature. Their research suggests that as little as 5 minutes of green exercise is enough to boost mood and self-esteem. Physical activity close to water, such as a river, lake or sea, is linked to the greatest improvement in mood.With depression it isn’t only the high intensity physical activities that have a positive impact in reducing symptoms. Less strenuous activity involved in walking also has benefits. 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. The meta-analysis of green exercise by Barton and Pretty shows that improvements in self-esteem decline with growing intensity of activity, which is a plus for those of us who favor a milder form of exercise.
One of the 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 savor the natural beauty and chat to the locals and each other. Walking facilitates savoring, a key route to positive emotions and connections to others.
“Walking brings connection, not only with nature herself with every step you take, but with your own nature, with your companions, be they human or other than human. It is the best food for the soul.” ~ Satish Kumar
Walking as an intervention is not only for personal well-being, it is also making its way into the workplace as a business tool. The act of moving physically seems to get things shifting mentally. “Solvitur ambulando” is a Latin phrase which means “It is solved by walking.” If I feel stuck on an issue I will problem-solve by going for a walk. Walking leads to positive emotions, which follow the broaden and build theory to enable us to think in creative, flexible, and productive ways.
Executive coach and fellow positive psychology practitioner Fiona Parashar blends 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. 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.” ~ Fiona Parashar
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 both be and think more creatively. Walking can help many of our workplace challenges.” ~ Rosalind Turner
Flourishing is a combination of feeling good and functioning well. Walking promotes both. It lifts the mood and enables creative thinking and problem-solving. I’ll leave the final word to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.
“Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being & 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.” ~ Soren Kierkegaard
The world’s largest urban walking festival is taking place in Bristol, the European Green Capital, until the 31st May. I am taking part in a walk for well-being on Sunday 17th May. You are welcome to join us in the West Country, UK or maybe organize your own walk for well-being.
Barton, J., & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science and Technology, 44: 3947-3955. Abstract.
Robertson. R., Robertson, A., Jepson, R., & Maxwell, M. (2012). Walking for depression or depressive symptoms: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Mental Health and Physical Activity, 5 (1), pp. 66-75. Original paper.
Kumar, S. (2008). Earth pilgrim: A year on Dartmoor. Documentary available on Youtube.
Picture of Satish Kumar on Dartmoor courtesy of Resurgence Magazine.
Picture of Rosemary Turner with Satish Kumar courtesy of Bristol City Council
Other pictures courtesy of Miriam Akhtar. The three stone walkway picture were taken by Miriam Akhtar of a pavement at the Penny Brohn Cancer Care. The pavement has quotations from people who have been treated there. See two more below.