The notion of exercise helping to significantly improve mental health and ease issues such as anxiety and depression has been widely flaunted. Walking, as a light form of exercise (‘light’, depending on your geographical location!) has also begun to get more recognition as a practical and beneficial way to improve our mental health. However, less has been noted on how walking can help to develop our social interaction to either establish bonds or solidify bonds with current friends or loved ones. This article aims to explore the topic from a personal perspective.
As an introvert frequently employed in a series of professions involving large amounts of social interaction, I’ve often felt ‘spent’ in terms of talking and listening when my working day is over. This, regrettably, has had a negative knock-on effect in terms of my social connections. My desire to mentally switch off in order to recover or my almost inevitable ‘crashes’ in the evenings has led to regularly stunted conversational efforts on my behalf.
Whilst fitness based activities like running have worked wonders to clear my mind and improve my health, it is not something that I can enjoy highly on a social level and, in addition, such activities can also further drain the batteries if you’re feeling physically tired in the first place. Walking, on the other hand, does enough for me to elevate the heart rate, improve my mood, and make me want to communicate with those around me.
Occasional evening and weekend strolls with my partner have helped me to clarify my thoughts and project them in the way that I mean whilst my willingness to listen and respond as part of a conversational loop I feel are also increased. The location is important to the effectiveness of this practice – we have been fortunate enough to take our walks around locations such as a local lake and densely wooded areas that have exuded a peaceful atmosphere. Such an atmosphere has limited stimuli and, therefore, distractions so that we could pay close attention to each other. This placed a greater level of value on what we wanted to say.
Breaking Free of Distractions
Such a habit made me think about how often I’ve utilised this practice and my resulting answers were ‘nowhere near enough’. Like many people and many activities in the world now, most conversations with friends and others have usually taken place with a relatively large number of distractions that often make our attention drift and devalue the output of those around us. What I mean by this is that my communication with a close one has often felt somewhat degraded because I’ve had, for example, my head stuck behind a laptop or fixed to my daily phone routines or glued to the TV. I’m not saying that it’s bad to use any of these items at all but the timing and necessity of using these items has frequently been misplaced when I could have done much better to indulge in a healthy conversation. In order to break free of this, I’ve started to find that my refuge is in getting out for walks to mentally switch off from these distractions and converse more freely.
The benefits of this are not only selfish too. If this type of practice also works for you then it will also benefit those with whom you are around. When in this situation you are more likely to be more receptive to input, ask more questions, listen more attentively and produce more positive and constructive comments. Healthy Works website (2019) highlights how walking promotes clear thinking as well as increasing oxygen flow around the body which will help us to more concisely communicate our thoughts. The increased levels of serotonin will also help us to receive comments and make comments more positively. Dr. Shilagh Mirgain explains via UW Health website (2015) that exposure to positive people can help a person to more easily achieve their daily goals. If that positivity is supporting or complimentary to that person then it will make both parties feel better about themselves through an instant karmic effect.
It stands to reason that if one can communicate in this way with familiar people then one can feel similarly enthused to communicate with new people. Whilst many companies are floating the ideas of walking meetings or interviews, the practice of walking groups for social and health benefits has been going strong since before the mid-1900’s. Groups like Ramblers have long promoted the freedom and health aspects of walking out in the countryside and they have been doing a fine job of it. Though I argue, ironically enough, that it sometimes takes an escape to the countryside (or wherever you can walk in peace) to fully connect with others. Personally, I find myself to be more open when walking and talking with people around me. On occasions in the past where I’ve had to meet new people – something I’m not very good at – I’d always found that the experiences were more pleasurable when someone has suggested taking a walk. Admittedly, this is rare (I believe it’s usually happened over a festive period or birthday after a large meal – this often sparks someone keen to start burning off the newly earnt calories!), but looking back and I have felt most comfortable and more positive in those situations. It’s a practice that I try to utilise more when given the chance again in similar situations.
Of course it’s a given that every individual interacts very differently to the next and you as the reader may prefer to establish or solidify your social bonds in other settings. However, I would greatly advocate the use of walking for the aforementioned means and, as a concluding summary, I’d offer the following key points to making this work.
- Choose a peaceful setting – your surroundings should be quiet but also contain enough natural beauty to put a smile on your face without overtly distracting your attention from your walking buddy / buddies.
- Take as little with you as possible – if you really do not need your phone then leave it at home. A set of keys for getting back in the house will usually suffice.
- Walk leisurely but don’t drag your heels! – do not rush so that the main objective is to get to the end but, at the same time, do not dawdle so that your heart doesn’t have a chance to pick up a little pace. The slightly increased heart rate will help your mood and attention.
- Time it appropriately – you do not need to do a marathon walk but try to make it at least 15 minutes long. This will be long enough for your brain to counteract stress and lift your mood.
If you’d love to have a good walk and talk but do not have somebody to come with you then Countryfile has produced a very useful page containing a series of links for how to join a variety of walking groups at: https://www.countryfile.com/go-outdoors/walks/walking-groups-how-to-find-and-join-a-walking-group/
If you’re interested in reading more on boosting your serotonin levels, then Alex Korb Ph.D. has written a clear and interesting article at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201111/boosting-your-serotonin-activity
Countryfile (2019). Walking Groups: How to Find and Join a Walking Group. Countryfile. Accessed September 2019 at https://www.countryfile.com/
Healthy Works (2019). http://www.healthyworks.org/
Korb, A. (November 17th 2011). Boosting Your Serotonin Activity. Psychology Today. Accessed September 2019 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201111/boosting-your-serotonin-activity
Mirgain, S. (February 17th 2015). The Power of Positive People: Why They’re Important to Your Health. UW Health. Accessed September 2019 at https://www.uwhealth.org/news/the-power-of-positive-people-why-theyre-important-to-your-health/45119
Unsplash (2019). https://unsplash.com/