This article has been updated from its original text.
The winter cold is setting in, the last of the holiday cheer is fading away, and in many parts of the country, there are more grey days than sunny ones. Your first instinct is to curl up with a good book and a warm cup of tea, but what you really need is a brisk walk.
Walk, don't run
“If you turn out to walk in winter with cold feet, in an hour’s time you will be in a glow all over…”
~ Madame Gout to Benjamin Franklin
According to a study by the European Society of Cardiology, those who take a brisk walk daily for at least 25 minutes could be adding at least three years to their lives. This simple practice can help repair old DNA and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and breast or colon cancer. For men over the age of 60, walking for at least an hour can cut the risk of a stroke by one third, even if it’s just a leisurely stroll.
Not only that, it turns out walking may be better for you than running or jogging. According to research by the American College of Cardiology, those who run most days of the week and faster than seven miles per hour have the same risk of death as someone who doesn’t exercise at all.
Several other studies have now confirmed that in most cases, the human body isn’t meant for longer periods of intense exercise. It strains the heart, increases the levels of adrenaline in the body, and causes inflammation in the coronary arteries. Training over several years can cause permanent changes to the heart, leading to micro-tears and scarring. Prolonged intense exercise can also reduce your immune system, increase your risk of illness, and makes you more susceptible to injury.
For those who believe that slow, gentle exercise won’t help them reach their weight-loss goals, studies show that dietary changes, more than vigorous workouts, are what helps you lose pounds. In fact, intense exercise makes some people so hungry that they immediately replace the calories they just burned.
Research continues to confirm that walking reduces hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease far better than running. Slow and steady wins the health race by far!
It's all in your mind
“Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and 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.”
~ Søren Kierkegaard
Besides the many physical health benefits of walking, the mental and emotional benefits are tremendous. If you’ve ever been in a dark mood and have stormed out of the house to ‘get some air’, you have already instinctively sought out the healing effects of a walk, but there’s scientific proof that a walk might be even better than you thought.
Research has shown that routine exercise can be as effective as taking an antidepressant, and there’s no set rule about what this exercise has to be. The exercise just needs to happen every day and be consistent over time, because it takes at least two months to start seeing real benefits.
This is different from the ‘runner’s high’ that some people experience after vigorous exercise, which temporarily boosts mood. Instead, the brain experiences an increase in blood flow and studies show that thinking skills and nerve cell growth, as well as areas of the brain that regulate mood, are immediately improved, which can cause a longer-lasting feeling of well-being.
Get out in nature
“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”
~ Wallace Stevens
To truly take advantage of the healing power of a walk, try meandering out into nature. Spending time in a natural environment can restore short-term memory, mood, mental energy, relaxation, concentration, and on and on.
While there are many ‘walking experts’ who recommend that you should walk a certain way, head up, arms swinging, it may be that the best approach is an open mind and a curious nature. Be willing to get off the beaten path and explore.
This winter, try out these interesting nature walk ideas to improve your health. Many are excellent ideas for families with children, but anyone can enjoy a walk in the great outdoors and experience the same benefits.
10 nature walk ideas for winter
- Tracking: You’re never alone in nature. Walk quietly and look for signs of animals and birds. A good tracking book or field guide can get you started, and don’t forget to bring binoculars!
- Photography: Almost everyone has a cell phone, and there’s a lot of competition to take the perfect shot for Instagram. But capturing a great nature shot for your own collection is just as satisfying.
- Sledding: This isn’t really walking, but if you live in the snow, it’s the best way to get home. Take a walk up a hill and slide down!
- Barefoot Walking: This is on the radical side of walking, but has a surprisingly large number of avid practitioners, even in winter. The best place may be a shoreline where there’s less places to get an injury. Adherents believe that foot circulation and balance are increased, and there are many websites dedicated to information on barefoot walking.
- Treasure Hunting: Bring a metal detector and look for artifacts, or search for crystals and minerals to share with other rock hounds. If you want something more predictable, try geocaching to find treasure left by other people.
- Edible Hunting: While winter isn’t the best time to find herbs and other wild plants, it can be a good time to learn about mushrooms. Sign up for a mushroom hunting class to get educated before you go out on your own, and be safe!
- Art and Journaling: Many avid walkers have created daily nature entries with drawings, paintings and maps of the interesting things they see on their walks. Some of these have become historical treasures. Maybe yours could be one of them.
- Nature Cleanup: Beaches, streams, rivers and roadsides are covered in trash. Bring a trash bag and clean up nature, or join a local cleanup group and get outside together.
- Take a Hike: What’s the difference between a walk and a hike? Possibly just location. A hike is little farther out, and usually a little more difficult than a walk, but it’s still walking. Explore local trails and become an expert in the parks around you.
- Walk a Dog: Walking a dog is one of the best ways to get in your daily constitutional, because your dog NEEDS to walk outside, usually twice a day, even in the rain. If you don’t have your own dog to walk, consider volunteering your walking time at a local animal shelter where a variety of dogs would be more than happy to accompany you.
Are you inspired to start walking? It is clear that the great explorers, artists and philosophers of the past embraced the simple act of walking outside. Comment below or tag us @eartheasy with your walk ideas and photos.
Schnohr P, et. al, Dose of Jogging and Long-Term Mortality: Copenhagen City Heart Study, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, February, 2015.