High intensity exercise isn't always the answer: try walking in nature instead

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As we enter our second year of life amid a global pandemic, and begin to rethink and restructure how we want to work and live, perhaps it’s time to rethink how we move, too.

If the exercise of the past was about looking our best, perhaps the fitness models of the future will be equally as much about how we feel. If not more so.

Just as productivity culture has raced us, one micro-optimisation at a time, toward epidemic levels of burnout, workout culture has bio-hacked and slashed our bodies towards ever more superhuman feats and physiques, often at the expense of our mental wellbeing, and our joints.

Hyper-masculine body ideals and the glossy influence of the fitness industrial complex might make us feel like we want to fit in by outfitting our bodies and Instagram feeds with big muscles, but filling out physically while ignoring our brains is missing the point.

Plus, the focus on bodily form excludes a large percentage of people who don’t fit the mould, physique-wise. Fitness culture can be highly exclusive and predetermined by genetics. For a beginner who shrinks at the idea of walking into a gym full of well-honed bodies, or doesn’t want to brave the cult-like environment of a fad fitness class, the options may seem limited. Not to mention the cost in time and money.

What if the goal wasn’t doing more, but less? What if there were an option that was accessible to all bodies, and achieved tangible results, both mentally and physically.

Enter the humble walk.

The benefits of walking

For centuries writers have enthused about the creative benefits of a good amble – any ‘famous quotes’ website can attest to that – but despite its well trodden graces in art and literature, the leisurely stroll has been somewhat left behind in exercise circles, consigned to the elderly, infirm, or the much lampooned gait of Olympic-level walking.

And yet, as this 2013 study demonstrates, walking has been proven to be as effective as running in cutting the risks of heart disease and diabetes. It says a lot about us, as a culture, that we prefer to glamourise the pain and suffering of the long distance run over the relatively simple pleasure of the stroll.

I spoke to Philip Bedwell, a personal trainer based in Margate and the host of the podcast Slouching Toward Masculinity. He told me walking is a great way to energise the body. “Walking can often be more effective than running for fitness,” he says. “Running, everyone feels they can do it, but you need a certain level of condition on the joints, whereas walking is a lot less impactful, so you can do more of it at a greater volume, quicker, without risking injury as much.”

Philip agrees that the “punishing workout“ mentality misses the point. “No pain no gain, and forcing yourself to train through guilt. These ideas need to be buried,” he says.

Instead of asking how much we can lift, or how many calories we’ve burned, we should be tracking how workouts make us feel. “You should leave the workout feeling better than when you walked in, feeling energised, feeling good, adding to your day as opposed to detracting from it.”

Philip isn’t the only one evangelising the modest trek. I spoke to both long time runners and the previously fitness frustrated who made the switch, and they largely agree that they get the same benefits from walking.

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The converts of walking

Seth Tilow, 67, is a hotel sales executive from Florida. “I was a daily runner for about 23 years and one day I felt a tweak in my knee,” he told me via email. That was 16 years ago and he’s still walking 4-5 miles a day. He doesn’t miss it. “I’ve gained much more than I lost,” he adds. “Running was a time saver in a busy world. Now I literally stop and smell the roses on a walk.”

With a busy job, walking allows him to slow down when necessary, giving him time to reflect and look ahead. “Both running and walking afford me big mental health benefits. Walking gives me more time and has kept me pretty balanced through some very difficult times.”

Rachel, a 32-year-old UX designer, told me she took up walking after health issues forced her to stop running. There were some sacrifices. “The biggest change was the time commitment,” she says. “In order to walk 10,000 steps, it takes me between 1-2 hours, whereas I used to fit in a daily 30 minute jog.” She prefers not to walk at night, for safety reasons, so fitting her steps in during the work day can be hard. And she misses the endorphin high of a long run.

But, she adds: “When I have time though, I absolutely enjoy the walk. It’s great for my mental health and ability to process the day. Physically I’ve lost some muscle weight since I stopped running, but walking has kept me surprisingly in shape, and I’ve gained extra alone time to myself.”

Rose goes walking in nature

Rose Gare-Simmons, 31, is a mental health nurse and Summer Mountain Leader based in the Lake District, who first began walking to recover from a back injury. "I was advised that gentle movement, but lots of it, was what I needed in order to improve the circulation in my back," she says.

And though it did help heal her back, she found that the biggest impact from walking was to her mental health. “I felt mentally rested and rejuvenated and became more productive at work,” she continues. “I had more resilience to day-to-day stress. I felt happier and healthier. I felt optimistic, my sleep improved, and my energy and concentration improved.

Rose says prior to discovering walking her relationship with exercise was not a good one. “I went to the gym, attended classes and occasionally went road running. I didn’t enjoy exercise, and viewed this as a necessity… like bitter medicine, not something I found enjoyable.”

That changed when she found walking. "It was no longer about my physical health, it was about the mental benefits," she adds. "Walking became my way to balance out my mental wellbeing. When times were tough at work I would head to the mountains on my day off. The exposure to the elements brings me so much emotional peace. It is a joy to go out walking.”

She no longer pressures herself to 'exercise', but says she has never been fitter.

Her experiences led her to qualify as a Summer Mountain Leader, and since June 2020 she has been leading group walks in the Lake District, aimed at introducing people to mental benefits of the outdoors. "We have had incredible feedback from attendees," she says. "People have reported improved mood, reduced stress and anxiety and a greater sense of mental wellbeing."

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How to walk effectively

None of this is to say that running is bad, but that it’s no longer the default. There’s another, slower, more considered way to put your best foot forward.

“Running can be deceptive,” Philip says. “Every time you run you are putting a lot of weight and impact on your joints. There is a skill to running, and it's overlooked a lot of the time.

“Running has advantages, but it's much better to get out there and do a walk. It takes a while to build up to running but you can get out there and do a walk and hit a good distance quite easily.”

“It's still important to warm up and cool down,” he adds. He also advises a really good pair of footwear, whether you're walking or running, and to think about the surface you choose. “You don't want to be banging your joints off concrete all the time. It's better to use softer surfaces.”

To get started, he advises a small and often approach. ”Everyone has taken exercise as this thing you do three times a week, or once a day, whereas there's a lot of tests that show doing a small amount throughout the day, conditions your body without overtraining or risking injury.”

As with work and life, there’s a balance in movement and stillness, too. Doing too much has its problems, but so does doing too little. “So it’s better to do something,” Philip says. “Movement is life after all.”


How you're feeling > How you're looking

Choosing an exercise that makes us feel good is a good start. In our always-on, mid-Pandemic world, there’s a lot to be said for slowing down and giving ourselves time to think, and to breathe, far from the clutches of social media and the anxieties of body image and burn out.

Personally, I can recommend a good walk. After years of veering from over-exercise and a stop-start relationship with running, to bouts of depression and injury, to finding myself mired in self hatred and stress, I’ve found walking incredibly liberating.

By prioritising how I feel over how I look, I’ve found a way to move that works for both body and mind, easing my depression and reconditioning my muscles; not to lift increasingly heavy weights, but to carry me forward, step after step. A body built for the rigours of life, not for Instagram.

Like many of the people I’ve spoken to, I’ve found that by adding several small walks to my daily routine over the past year, I’ve lost weight and feel better than I have in a long time. For me it has been the antidote to the burnout I was sprinting towards.

But whether the answer for you is walking, running, lifting weights, or doing classes, the right question to ask, according to Philip, is why are we exercising in the first place? "To better our lives," he offers, "to move without pain, to just enjoy the moment.”

That’s an approach we could all stand to consider. Perhaps while out for a stroll.

Written by Dan Dalton.

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