How walking can improve your mental health

A low winter sunset over a big sandy beach at Marazion in Cornwall

by Rob Hill

I spent the second half of October in far west Cornwall, in the pretty little town of Marazion, just down the road from Penzance. It’s one of my favourite places on Earth.

The changeable weather was pretty much as expected for autumn. Brisk and breezy, with slate grey clouds scudding across the sky that first threatened then fiercely deposited heavy rain. But there were days of bright sunshine, the air feeling clinchingly crisp and clear.

So even with the rain, it was great weather for walking.

The biggest beach in the west

I mean, it’s probably not the biggest beach in the west. But on a good day, it sure feels like it.

Standing on Marazion beach, you look south to the famous St Michael’s Mount, and you can watch the incoming tide quickly covering the causeway that connects the island to the mainland. Looking west, the beach sweeps towards the horizon in a huge arc all the way to Penzance, a scimitar where land and sea meet.

Most days we would go for a walk along the beach, trying to avoid the scattered crowds, their heads bowed into the wind, and admiring the windsurfers who were expertly skimming across the top of the rolling, white-topped waves.

Hundreds of gulls casually rode the breeze, dipping low over the surf which crashed onto the stony beach. Skittering, noisy Pied Wagtails fed amongst the seaweed until dusk’s dying light, before moving to a nearby reedbed to roost. And flocks of small wading birds – Turnstone and Ringed Plover – frantically poked around the seaweed until being disturbed by dogs. They would then fly together at high speed, bunched together and low over the sea, before settling down again on the beach several hundred yards away.

We walked the same route several times, saw the same sights, and took comfort in the familiarity. We don’t live in Cornwall, but we felt a profound sense of happiness. We were outdoors, beneath big skies, and walking through a landscape that we love so much.

In short – walking was, without a doubt, benefitting our mental health.

Marazion beach at sunset, with a sandy beach in the foreground and St Michael's Mount island in the background, against a deep blue sky.
St Michael’s Mount in the afternoon winter sun

So, did you manage to get out for a walk at the weekend?

There’s an increasing body of evidence demonstrating that walking outdoors benefits our mental health. The origins of these studies date back to the 1950s, ultimately leading to the recent preoccupation with walking “10,000 steps a day”, which is actually an arbitrary figure derived from a marketing campaign in the 1960s.  

A recent study showed that merely half that amount can be beneficial to us. Indeed, the NHS advises that a mere 10 minutes of brisk walking daily makes a positive difference ( https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/running-and-aerobic-exercises/walking-for-health/ ).

Considering that walking is an activity that many of us do every day without thinking, it’s heartening to know that such a basic activity can improve our physical and mental health.

But not all forms of walking are equal. Researchers distinguish between “passive” everyday walking, e.g. going shopping, and the act of purposefully going for a walk.

Driven by a sense of purpose, it’s this type of walking, when we lace our boots and don our coats, and step outside with a destination in mind, which is truly valuable.

But how can walking outside improve our mental health?

Modern philosophers have argued that walking outside is the act of moving through the landscape rather than treating it as scenery. This relatively slow progress allows us to connect with place, triggering all our senses.

At this time of year, a walk through a woodland will smell earthy, damp, almost primeval. The branches are bare, and the floor is cushioned with soft brown and yellow leaves that have fallen over the previous few weeks. Sounds such as the barking of a deer, or the calls of crows flying over, seem to carry further through the air, and with greater resonance than in the summer. A bewildering variety of mushrooms and fungi push through the damp soil in clumps, or cling to fallen tree trunks.

We might not pay detailed attention to some – or all – of these things, but we still take note, subconsciously.

There’s still a part of our brain, a stubborn little node that somehow reaches back through countless generations, that recognises our vulnerability within a landscape, and that maintaining a connection to it is vital.

A study of walkers in Iceland in 2018 concluded that when facing times of stress, walking outdoors had a huge positive impact on mental wellbeing. And under periods of prolonged and ongoing stress, simply resting and looking at nature helped enormously.

You don’t have to search too hard on social media to see confirmation of this, outpourings of joy or wonder from people who have spotted a fox or witnessed a beautiful sunset.

Taking this a step further to its logical conclusion, current social science research indicates that spending time in nature also results in us developing “pro-environmental behaviours”. Listening to the birds, splashing around in a river, or watching the sun set – walking in nature is caring about nature.

Walking outside matters. We can clear our thoughts when outside, form a profound and inspiring connection with the landscape, and feel as though we’re being absorbed into something that’s much bigger than us – the rhythms of the natural world.

Move for mental health this winter

We’ll briefly pivot now to facial hair, before bringing things back together (promise).

Believe it or not, it’s now 20 years since men were first asked to grow a moustache to support health and awareness campaigns. 

Yes, 2023 marks the 20th “Movember”.  

Time flies, and many spectacular displays of facial hair have been grown since 2003 in support of the cause. 

Over the years, one of the three main aims of Movember has been to raise awareness of men’s mental health issues, specifically regarding suicide prevention. 

This year, Movember UK are encouraging us to Move for Mental Health – raise funds and save lives.

We’ve focussed in this post on walking, because we’re a sedate bunch, and two of the Thrive team are also birdwatchers. You don’t see many birds if you’re swiftly running past them all the time (and let’s be honest, scaring them off whilst doing so).

But the Movember UK team are a little more active, encouraging their fundraisers to run or walk 60km this month. You can find out more details by clicking the link here – https://uk.movember.com/support-us/move.

But running or walking, the positive effect on our mental health can be the same, once we wrench ourselves from the sofa and get outside.

So if you can get out this weekend, or indeed at any time over the coming weeks, give it a go. Pay attention to tree branches swaying in the wind, flocks of arguing Rooks feeding in fields, or how the sun sets fire to a cold evening sky.

You won’t regret it.