In our most recent EverWalk Book Club, we discussed The Salt Path, a memoir by Raynor Winn. This true story of a couple, who lost their home and livelihood the day after the husband found out he had a terminal illness, riveted our group as we followed their journey walking over 600 miles along the Southwest Coast of England.
During the course of their two-part journey, countless remarkable things happened — not least of which was the almost complete remission of all physical symptoms the more Raynor’s husband Moth walked. Although doctors repudiated the idea that walking or physical exertion or more oxygen could have caused the improvement, the results were undeniable. And the better Moth felt, the more the couple’s hope and fortunes improved. The Salt Path proved a truly redemptive tale of the power of walking one’s way to hope and healing.
This is certainly something people all over the world have been discovering during the pandemic, as walking has become one of the few things almost anyone can do. Certainly, walking during the pandemic has brought all of us hope and healing.
But even before 2020, the regenerative power of walking had not gone unnoticed.
In her article about how walking in the rain saved her life, Suzanne Falter writes about what happened following the sudden death of her daughter and the loss of her relationship and home.
“A nearby park with rambling blackberry lined paths beckoned to me—even in the rain-soaked northern California winter. Unable to even keep two thoughts in my head at the time, the only thing I could do was to walk
Sometimes I sobbed as I walked. Sometimes I smiled at the pileup of bittersweet memories that poured through my body. Sometimes unexpected ideas would pop up for things I wanted to write, or places I wanted to go. Sometimes I’d remember lost wisps of memory from my childhood, things once said to me or stories I’d been told.
These walks became nothing less than a time of reckoning.
Most of the time, I just needed the active motion of my legs pumping and my feet moving through the mud. I needed to feel my feet on the ground in order to somehow get a grip—and to be reminded, perhaps, that everything would eventually be okay.
Gradually, my grief began to lift as my walks in nature gradually worked their magic
Turns out there is science behind my random decision to hike in the rain.”
Indeed, scientists have proved that a ninety-minute walk in nature slows our worried thoughts and reduces activity in the parts of the brain associated with mental illness. All walking — from hikes in nature to exercising on a treadmill — increases our creativity. But walks in nature have the unique ability to shift us out of anxiety and into new ways of thinking.
The Japanese call this forest-bathing. Thought of as both a physiological and psychological exercise, forest bathing invites reconnection with nature as an antidote to burnout. Now it is becoming more prevalent in the United States as well.
Forest bathing is a slow process. It’s not about exercise as much as being present while moving slowly through nature. On a three-hour forest bath, walkers might travel half a mile on easy trails — ideally a somewhat dense forest where it’s quiet and there is a stream. But the key is — no “devices”. No cell phones or cameras. Just you and nature. Inevitably, forest bathers go through many stages — worry, stress, anxiety — before they can just let themselves be right where they are. But when that happens, everything resets itself. Body, mind, spirit.
Forest bathers have experienced not only more joy and ease, but also a release from physical pain. The more they commit to forest bathing, the more their lives begin to transform.
There are many reasons for this, including the aerosols trees emit. They breathe out their immune systems, and we breathe them in. But also we are hardwired to go home to nature. And when we do, we feel homed in ways we usually do not in the frenetic modern world.
In particular, walking has become a profound way of coping with grief.
Christine Baumgarner writes about walking with a neighbor following the sudden death of her husband. “I felt like I was on a roller coaster in the fog. . .At first, walking helped me see that, even though my own world was standing still, the outside world was going on. I began to see the walks as a time when I could put a moratorium on my grief for 30 minutes a day.” As she walked, the birds and flowers and views she saw took her mind off of her grief and began to allow her to heal.
A study at Stanford revealed that people who walked for ninety minutes in nature reduced the loop of negativity, which is a factor for depression. Interestingly, people who walked in a high-traffic urban area didn’t experience the same benefits.
The Mayo Clinic concurs. Even though exercise often seems like the last thing you want to do if you’re depressed or anxious, it can have profound benefits. Studies show that not only does walking reduce both depression or anxiety, but it also keeps them from returning. Some of this is due to the endorphins released by exercise. But it is also due to some simple common sense factors: Walking gives you focus, helps you feel a sense of accomplishment, and connects you to others and the world.
Certainly, Soren Kierkegaard believed, “Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. 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. But, by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right”.
Doctors agree that walking reduces the risk of certain cancers, heart disease and stroke, lowers blood pressure, increases immunity, and aids in weight loss. Walking can also alleviate arthritis pain, stave off osteoporosis, improve energy levels and make people happier. Walking helps prevent memory decline and also weight gain. It is also shown to help regulate hormones.
The best thing about walking is that it’s something just about everyone can do. Which is why we here at EverWalk feel so excited about the power of The EverWalk Mile to change people’s lives. A mile a day can transform your life!! Find out more about walking The EverWalk Mile every day by clicking HERE.
As our EverWalk Book Club starts in our next selection (Henry David Thoreau, On Walking), let’s end with his advice: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”
Let’s all continue to preserve our health and spirits by sauntering through the woods letting go of our worldly engagements and anxieties, and put one foot in front of one another in becoming well-healed by walking.