Do you ever find yourself, during the workday, glancing out of a window and wishing you could just go for a walk outside? Once that might have been considered procrastination. Today though, there’s a growing understanding that taking a daily walk during the workday can not only help you be more productive and creative, it can also be crucial for your mental health.
It was during the Covid pandemic that I first began to appreciate the power of walking in nature on my own mental health. I was the only one of my family who had worked from home before the pandemic hit. Now that I had to stay at home, I was going stir-crazy. Worse still, the bouts of anxiety that I had been fighting for the past few years now came daily.
In the past I’d countered them by going to the gym but it, like most other businesses, was closed. So, I started walking to escape. It was transformative. Just 20 minutes in my local park helped calm my mind, relax my breathing and change my attitude. After a few days of this new regimen, I also found my creativity had returned. In fact, I now had a new book idea – a walking journey through my homeland of Wales exploring the importance of reconnecting with nature.
I soon discovered an old Welsh phrase, dod yn ôl at fy nghoed, that means ‘to return to a balanced state of mind’. However, its literal translation is, rather beautifully, ‘to return to my trees.’ It captured perfectly how I felt as I set off on a 300-mile walk through the woodlands of Wales.
Nurture with nature
The more I researched the topic, the more I learned about the benefits of walking outdoors if only for a short time. In recent years, there have been numerous scientific studies conducted demonstrating the benefits of nature on mental health. One, by Kings College in London found that exposure to trees and birdsong in cities improved mental wellbeing and the benefits were still evident hours after being outdoors. Another, described by Shane O’Mara in his book In Praise of Walking, showed how students at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada who took a 17-minute winter walk outdoors among trees were nearly a third more likely to report being in a better mood afterwards than those who took the same walk indoors.
In Japan, the government has incorporated Shinrin-Yoku (forest bathing) into its national health programme after scientific studies showed that spending time outside with trees could reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory. Here in the UK, the NHS also is starting to prescribe walking as preventative treatment for a series of issues including mental health problems.
One day during my walking research for my book, I found myself in an ancient Celtic Rainforest called Coed Felenrhyd. It was like walking back in time. The sounds of the outside world vanished amid the rushing of the river as it navigated the steep banks of a steep gorge. A collection of vines hung down from the branches of gravity-defying sessile oaks as if they were stretching every sinew to drink from the rushing river. This felt more like I was walking in the Monteverde cloud forest of Costa Rica than a wood in North Wales.
Sustainable mental wellbeing
I left Coed Felenrhyd convinced that opening executives’ eyes to the magic of these woodlands could change the way business acts and thinks. I imagined bringing business leaders on a walk through woodlands like Coed Felenrhyd to show them the power of nature and why it is so critical to the wellbeing and future of their business. But the more I thought about it, I realised that you don’t need to travel to a Celtic Rainforest to experience the calming, educational creative, and transformative influence of nature. And you don’t have to be a business executive to appreciate it. The business lessons of valuing nature are relevant for all employees as the COP15 summit on biodiversity demonstrated.
A walk in a local park, by a river or a wood can have a similar impact – you just have to get out there and experience nature in order to appreciate its importance to our lives and our businesses. So, what are you waiting for? Next time you contemplate working through your lunch break, go outside instead and just put one foot in front of the other. You might not travel far but the walk will open your mind and you’ll return refreshed. Perhaps you’ll even discover a better way of doing business.
About the author
Matthew Yeomans is the author of Return to My Trees – a walking exploration of how werestore balance with nature. His Executive Nature consultancy shapes sustainability learning and walking experiences for business.
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