Why walking may be the easiest (and cheapest) way to take care of your mental health
I have discovered many new things in isolation. I found myself baking garbage out of myself. I found that I love to paint. I found the new street to appreciate my local main street, including a range of independent shops and local treats. But what I found most of all was that I love to walk. And I mean the love of walking, I would even say that this is my favorite pastime, along with naps and baths. And on darker days of isolation, when our one-hour daily walks served as the only reminder of the outside world, I found that walking was a bit of a lifeline when it came to mental health.
There is something incredibly grounding about walking, especially in nature (I live in London, so when I talk about nature, I mean any place with one or two trees) where you can breathe fresh air, absorb natural sunlight and put the phone away for a while. a few liberating moments. Plus, I’ve found that it really helps establish perspective when things seem stunning. There is so much life and beauty around us, and they exist outside the isolated small worlds that we create for ourselves (which have become even smaller due to isolation). It was reassuring to hear the chirping of birds, watch the grass flutter in the wind, and see the squirrels hiding completely oblivious and completely unconcerned by the prospect of a global pandemic and imminent economic crisis.
While the ability to walk was a huge discovery for me, it is something that has been considered a way to take care of my mental health for many years, so in 2016, journalist Briony Gordon decided to ask several people to walk with her. At the time, I was not doing very well, and I was running around Clapham Common, not far from where I live, trying to feel better. I couldn’t help but notice that all these people were coming together, footballers, runners, groups of moms, she says. I thought, when so many of us are suffering, why aren’t there groups of people with mental health problems here on Common too?
Briony sent out a tweet inviting anyone interested in meeting her at a small cafe near Serpentine on Valentine’s Day 2016 to join her for a walk. To my complete surprise, 20 people showed up on a rainy morning and Mental Health Mates was born.
Mental Health Mates is a network of peer support groups run by people with mental health problems who meet regularly to walk, exercise, and share with each other without fear or judgment. They recently teamed up with beauty brand BECCA to launch a limited edition concealer to brighten the skin around the eyes, and BECCA has donated £ 10,000 to support their efforts. They wanted to support us and help our mission to shed light on those who suffer in the dark, says Briony. For me, running or walking is the moment when I can do something good for myself; I spent so many years not taking care of myself or doing anything that could hurt my body, now I celebrate these moments.
As we face the prospect of stricter social distancing measures and possibly a second isolation, it is more important than ever to take care of our mental health and make the most of the opportunity to get out into the fresh air. Research has shown that being in nature has significant psychological benefits, says Dr. Becky Spelman, a consultant psychologist at a private therapy clinic. It calms people down and helps them to be attentive and present in the moment. The benefits should not be underestimated; it really works wonders for mental health.