Dr. Footpath helps Reduce Stress (“Life is for living. Get off your bum!”)
by Carol Cowe
“Exercise is one of the simplest and most effective means of stress reduction.” The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, by Martha Davis
Indeed exercise plays a huge part in helping to reduce stress and what better way to exercise for most of us than walking. Unless we have a disability which prevents us from walking, nothing could be easier. We were born to walk, so it’s natural, it’s cheap – all you need is a comfortable pair of shoes – and it’s something which can easily be fitted into everyday life. Brisk walking is also aerobic so walking regularly can increase our level of fitness, with all the benefits which that brings. The author Robin Hunter Neilands (he writes as both Robin Hunter & Robin Neilands), was the first person to use the term “Dr. Footpath” to describe the therapeutic benefits derived from walking. A very apt description.
“We are not alone in our love for the outdoors -.the results of a MORI poll commissioned by the National Trust has shown that for over 80 percent of adults, visiting the countryside is a vital counterbalance to the stress of daily life.” Camping and Caravanning. The magazine of The Camping and Caravanning Club.
Above all, walking gets you out in the fresh air. This in itself is good for you. Walking outdoors takes your mind off your problems so that you return feeling refreshed and invigorated. If it is possible to go to the seaside or out in the country there is plenty to take your mind off everyday problems. Even in the city where the air is far from fresh, it is possible to walk around and be completely distracted. The bustling crowds, the traffic, people shopping and talking, there’s plenty to watch until you reach the park where you can escape for 10 minutes or so.
For those who don’t like walking outdoors it is possible to buy a treadmill or gain access to one in a local gym and so improve fitness and reduce stress by walking on this, but these people would miss out on all the other benefits of being outdoors. Outdoors all the senses are stimulated combining a range of other therapies.
- Aromatherapy and the sense of smell. Think of the smell of rain on the trees, the plants as they warm up after a shower, a flower, the bushes, cow dung (perhaps not so therapeutic!), the salt sea air and the heather as you climb up a mountain. Essential pine oil will certainly have an invigorating, uplifting and healing effect, but you can’t beat the exhilarating effect, which clears the head and the mind, of a good walk in a pine forest!
- Colour Therapy and the sense of sight. Enjoy the colours of the trees, the leaves, the blossom, the berries, the grass, moss, fungus, the flowers. All these differ depending on the season. The colour of the sea, the lakes, the rivers, the sand, the sky, the snow, icicles . . . the list could go on. The colours of nature are indeed therapeutic.
- Music Therapy and the sense of sound. Nowadays many CDs for relaxation use the natural sounds of birds, trees, waves, rivers, dolphins, wind etc. added to the music. Outdoors you can experience that first hand and be exercising at the same time! Think of the sound of the birds, waterfalls, the wind rustling in the trees, a babbling brook , the humming of the bees, the rush of the sea and the call of the seagulls. It’s relaxing and de-stressing just to think about it. But when you experience it first hand stressful problems just seem to melt away!
- The Sense of Touch has beneficial effects. Touch the sand or a leaf as you go by, or “hug a tree” feeling and learning from the hundreds of years of wisdom within or feel the coolness of a river and the smoothness of its pebbles. Try some Water Therapy by having a paddle or swim in the sea or a river, or go for it big time and stand under a waterfall! You’ll feel exhilarated and better in seconds!
- The Sense of Taste. Can you really go to the seaside without tasting the salt sea air? And the taste of wild blackberries are wonderful if you are lucky enough to find them. Or why not pack some nutritional food for a picnic and see how much better it tastes outdoors.
All this stimulation of the senses combined with exercise and being at one with nature eases the stresses and strains of life and problems just seem to melt away, or maybe you just see them in a different light. You return alive and invigorated, ready to deal with anything life throws at you.
Health services around the world tend to agree the best way to get started with easy exercise is by walking. Starting out on a walking programme for stress relief is not as daunting as it may seem. As with any form of physical activity, if you have not done any form of exercise for some time, you have a medical condition or are very overweight, you should get the go-ahead from your doctor before embarking on a programme.
How long you walk for and how often depends very much on your level of fitness at the outset, but for anyone who is completely unfit or very overweight, a good way to start is by building more walking into your daily life. e.g. walking to work or the shops instead of taking the car, getting off the bus one or two stops early and walking the rest of the way, climbing the stairs instead of taking the lift. Rather than sit in the office at lunch time munching sandwiches, walk around the block or to the park and eat your sandwiches there. You’ll be surprised how your mood lifts and how the morning’s problems no longer seen insurmountable on your return. Once you’ve built more walking into your daily life you’re ready for the serious stuff!
“It is therefore important for stress managers and counsellors to ensure that clients have adequate support in the early stages of an exercise regime. Taking up exercise for the first time can be difficult for some, as a whole new range of skills and vulnerabilities are suddenly exposed. Acquiring confidence and mastering simple skills can take a few weeks, and often the benefits of physical activity, especially in the case of weight loss, are not always perceived until 6/8 weeks. So motivation can be low, and encouragement may be required.” “It is therefore important for stress managers and counsellors to ensure that clients have adequate support in the early stages of an exercise regime. Taking up exercise for the first time can be difficult for some, as a whole new range of skills and vulnerabilities are suddenly exposed. Acquiring confidence and mastering simple skills can take a few weeks, and often the benefits of physical activity, especially in the case of weight loss, are not always perceived until 6/8 weeks. So motivation can be low, and encouragement may be required.” Exercise As A Stress Management Tool By Chantal Gosselin and Adrian Taylor – Stress News October 1999 Vol.11 No.4 Stress News October 1999 Vol.11 No.4
If you haven’t done much walking before, start with just 10 minutes every other day. Gradually build up by adding an extra minute every week until you are walking for 30 minutes three to five times per week. Try to walk at the same time of day or evening so that it becomes a habit. Vary your route or the place you walk from time to time so that you don’t become bored with the same scenery. By the time you are walking 30 minutes every other day you should be already feeling the benefits. You should be feeling fitter, more relaxed in mind and body, have a happier disposition, renewed interest in life and more able to cope with what life throws at you.
Becoming More Adventurous
The next step is to build up the speed at which you are walking. One way to do this is to walk the same route but each time try to walk a little further than the week before within the 30 minutes. Another way is to pace yourself by alternating 5 minutes at your normal pace with 2 minutes at an increased pace until you have covered the full 30 minutes. Each week increase the amount of time walking at the faster rate by 1 minute, until eventually walking the entire half hour at a nice brisk pace. You can then start introducing some longer walks into your schedule. To gain maximum benefit it is recommended you walk from 30 minutes to 2 hours, three to five times per week. Once you have reached this stage you should be reaping the benefits. For some this is as far as they wish to take things, but others may wish to progress further.
“The falls (The Grey Mare’s Fall) can be heard before they are first seen through a screen of trees. The path descends slightly into a shaded wooded glen and crosses a small burn on a wooden footbridge.” Rambler’s guide “Ben Nevis and Glen Coe” by Chris Townsend of The Rambler’s Association. Its time to don your walking boots, pack your waterproofs, a nutritious snack and a bottle of water into your knapsack and holler a chorus or two of, “I love to go a wandering!”
These walks can be anything from 2 to 12 or 13 miles in length depending on your ability and level of fitness and, unless you are lucky enough to live in the country or by the seashore, because of the amount of time travelling involved etc, have to be done in addition to or as one of your main walking sessions of the week. Most folk will opt for these as a weekend hobby or as part of a holiday, but once hooked you’ll want to do one as often as possible.
Some of the best day walks in Britain are forest & woodland trails. The Woodland Trust has some wonderful places to walk as does the Forestry Commission. Forest Enterprise are opening up more and more areas of forest for recreation and there are paths for both walkers and cyclists. Many of the walkers’ paths are circular, way-marked routes, excellent if you have children with you since they love following the coloured trails and running on ahead to be the first to find the next marker post. They vary in length from around 1.5 miles to around 8 and also in the grade of difficulty, easy walking, moderate or strenuous. Look out for the “boot sole” on the maps at the beginning of the walks. They tell you the level of difficulty. An unshaded sole tells you the walk is easy and only sensible footwear is required. A sole with lines across a bit like a welly sole) tells you the walk is moderate but you’ll need waterproof footwear (loads of puddles and muddy bits, then!), while a sole which depicts a serious walking boot, tells you the walk is strenuous and hillwalking boots are required. Look out too on the maps for the “3 hills” signs. These also tell you the level of difficulty of walk. If the first little hill is shaded that tells you the walk is easy and is called a “muscle loosener.” If the 2nd slightly higher hill is also shaded, this means the walk is moderate, called a “muscle stretcher”, but if all 3 hills are shaded, look out! This is a strenuous walk, called a “muscle builder!” There is usually a car park with these maps at the beginning of the trails and these little signs and phrases once again appeal very much to children (and to child-like individuals like myself!) Imagine their joy as they shout, “We’re doing a muscle builder today!” Don’t worry, however, there’s usually quite a choice or trails, some easy, some moderate and some strenuous.
It probably goes without saying that you should start with easy walks and build your way up to the strenuous ones which can take you out onto open hillside, up steep tracks and in some cases halfway up mountains. These particularly difficult walks really belong in the next category but they are few and far between.
When walking through a forest, you are open to all the relaxing and stress-releasing benefits. Apart from exercise, there’s the scent of the trees, wild flowers, moss and lichen, the singing of the birds and the rustling of small animals, sounds of the wind in the trees, the babbling of a brook and the rush and spray of a waterfall, the feeling of walking on pine needles, leaves and soft moss and the gentle, nurturing calm presence of the trees – some young, many ancient. Stress-busting – big time!
Other good places for walks are along river banks and canal towpaths or even along disused railway lines. Even in cities nowadays, it is possible to find quiet riverside, canal and railway walks. Again all the other benefits open up – the smell and sounds of a river, the singing of the birds, the sparkle of the sun on the water or the splashing of the rain in the water, on the stones or bouncing off the leaves of the trees. Seeing the fish jump and the flies dancing across the water. The sight of a heron fishing. The sight of canal barges making their way leisurely along the canal. Nowadays in Britain along disused railway lines there is an abundance of growth of wild flowers and wild life. Spot the voles, bunnies, squirrels and foxes as well as the birds. Problems seem insignificant in busy natural places like this!
Or how about a bracing walk along one of the coastal footpaths? From walks along sandy beaches to mind-blowing cliff top trails these are great walks with the added benefit of sea air! As you stride along (watch your step if its steep) you can feel your spirits soar along with the cliffs and gulls. Watch the “white horses” or breakers come crashing in over the rocks and hear the tinkle of the stones and shells as the wave withdraws, feel the spray of the sea and hear the raucous cries of the seagulls. Watch the cormorants dive for fish. Feel the smoothness of a pebble and watch a crab making its way to a rock pool. Gaze for miles out to sea or along a golden sandy beach. The sun, the wind, the sea . . . aaahh . . . you just can’t beat it. Feel that glorious feeling of complete relaxation run through your body. Peaceful? Stress-free? Absolutely!
Some of the long distance footpaths around the country are also superb walking territory. If you are feeling timid you can limit yourself to only following the path for an hour or two, then turn back, returning by the same route. Or you can pack a rucksack and be gone a week or two, the choice is yours. Some of the footpaths take you through quite diverse countryside so it’s an ever changing view – up hills, down dales, along rivers, through woods and farmland.
Obviously it makes sense to start with short walks and to build up to the longer hikes. A good pair of walking boots is necessary for comfort and protection plus a good waterproof since you can never trust the British climate, plus some nourishing food to keep you going and a large bottle of water to keep you hydrated. Once you have been walking for a few miles, you will notice your mood has improved considerably and eventually you will get a feeling of pure elation. This is not just because you feel you are achieving something, but because endorphins and other “feel good” chemicals are being released into the brain. Not only that, but the fresh air and the light (sunlight if you’re lucky!) work their magic too, giving you a real sense of well-being and mental clarity. You will return to your starting point with a sense of achievement, elation and satisfaction, knowing you have had a great day out, seen some wonderful scenery, had a bit of an adventure and because of the fresh air, exercise and relaxation, you will have a great sleep that night.
“The climb is relentless but straightforward; ever expanding views and increasingly rocky surroundings maintain interest, and there is always the promise of more exciting things to come.” Comment on Ben Starav (Central Highlands of Scotland) 100 best Routes on Scottish Mountains by Ralph Storer.
Not many people want to progress to this stage, some even call it “The Silly Stage”. Yet the rewards are beyond compare for those willing to make the effort. This is the preserve of the most serious of hill-walkers and those of us who simply cannot help ourselves! Fancy bagging a few Munros? Feel the urge to complete a long distance footpath? Then step right up, the position is yours for the taking!
You’d like to climb a mountain? Then arm yourself with a good wind-proof jacket, a rucksack large enough to hold a picnic, plenty water, a waterproof, an extra sweater, gloves, a hat and an emergency survival blanket or bag, plus a map, compass and whistle and head for your chosen mountain. Do your homework first. It’s nonsensical to head for any mountain just because you’ve heard of it or the name sounds good. Make sure you have already climbed a few hills because you need to be fit. Find out if there is a car park near the bottom of the mountain. You sometimes have to walk a few miles before you even reach the foot of certain mountains and you certainly don’t want to have to do that first time around!
Invest in a good book which features favourite climbs and read about your mountain before you go. The book will probably give you information about where to park, which Ordinance Survey map you need and how easy the climb is. Choose an easy rating for your first few and avoid climbs which mention “scramble” until you have a good few under your belt. Many climbs up mountains are perfectly straightforward and some are waymarked so finding a good mountain walk isn’t difficult and the rewards are superb. Can you imagine the elation on reaching the top? The release of those “feel good” chemicals, the superb views and the feeling of standing on top of the world just cannot be beaten. Even on a cloudy day it is sometimes possible to climb up through the clouds above and beyond and you find yourself looking down on the clouds, a very strange but magical feeling! It’s not always necessary to go up a mountain. Sometimes the walks round the mountain or in between mountains are every bit as good if not better with still the same stunning views and fresh mountain air. The Lost Valley in the mountains of Glencoe, Scotland is a fine example of this.
A word of warning. Always show respect for the mountains. Remember to leave a note with someone about where you are going and when you expect to be back, just in case you get into difficulties or have an accident. Be prepared to turn back should the weather turn nasty or you feel unwell or too tired to do the whole walk.
Tackling a long distance footpath could be the thing for you if you fancy walking for days on end. There are routes of various lengths, some easy and flat, some difficult and mountainous, some on the coast and some which go through wooded countryside. Maps of all the major long distance footpaths can be bought so that you can plan in advance. Most of these maps come as part of a pack which also contains information about overnight stops etc and some holiday companies now offer a service where they will collect your luggage from your hotel and deliver it to the one where you will be staying the following night doing away with the need to carry a very large back-pack. Nevertheless, you have to be very fit to embark on one of these walks, but you will reap the rewards of days spent walking out in the fresh air for lengthy periods of time and a true sense of achievement at the end of the footpath.
“When we go out into the countryside for recreation, some of us go as soldiers, others as poets. Some may climb a hill as a Gazelle might, while others do so with the grace of a yeti. Whatever our varied reasons and our eccentric ways, we invariably return changed in some way, usually for the better.” Skye and the Small islands. Stephen Whitehouse.
Case History 1 – “John”
John had been in a state of dis/ease for some time. He went down with cold after cold, virus after virus, until he became very sick indeed and he was off work long term. Gradually, he recovered somewhat but every time he tried to return to his work, his stress levels soared. He worried he may not be able to get up in the morning to get to work, so much so he lay awake stiff as a board half the night. He agitated at the wheel of the car he should not have been driving, since he was in such a confused, stressed state that his concentration was all over the place. He fretted about how far behind he would get with work if he had to take more time off and what if it was discovered his work was not up to standard anyway? What if he lost his job? What would his wife and kids do without money? They’d lose their house. . . John went into panic mode every time the phone rang in case he “couldn’t cope again.” Instead of taking a proper break, John worked through lunch and often stayed late in the evening trying to make up for when he’d been ill and also trying to get extra money in the bank, just in case. Even then he felt incredibly guilty because he should have been at home with his wife and being the perfect Dad. This was only the tip of the iceberg. John worried about everything and was so stressed his muscles ached. Of course, he became ill again and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, forcing the situation he had dreaded – more time off work.
Sitting at home feeling sorry for himself didn’t suit John and he decided to take a long hard look at himself and his lifestyle. He realised how stressed he was and felt he needed to make some changes. He remembered that his doctor had vaguely suggested that it might be an idea to get out for a walk because the fresh air and sunshine would “do him good.”
“Beats sitting around here getting bored,” thought John and decided to give it a go. “At first I only went out for 10 minutes 3 times a week,” recalls John. “I was very anxious before I went out and had to firmly ask myself what the worst thing was that could happen? Fall asleep on the pavement. No doubt someone would find me! And by the time the 10 minutes was up I was so tired, I couldn’t wait to get back behind my front door.”
Gradually, however, John didn’t feel quite so tired and he began increasing the amount of time he walked until, after some time, he was walking 30 – 40 minutes every week day. “I began to really look forward to my mid-day walk. It gave me something to focus on. I took a different route every day even although it was only round the housing scheme. I nearly always felt better after a while. I found I was sleeping and eating better, my head was clearer and I felt much more able to cope with everyday life.”
John’s daily walk soon became a habit he just couldn’t shake off. Rain or shine every weekday, out he went. After some time John returned to work, but by this time his habit of a daily walk was so strong that instead of working through his lunch break, he left the building and had a good 30 minute walk.
“My walk helps me put things in perspective,” says John. “Getting out removes me from any problems, large or small. I return feeling refreshed and able to cope with a much clearer mind.” Once settled back into work, John decided to take his walking to another level. He and his wife began taking long country walks at weekends. They enjoyed getting out so much that they bought themselves a caravan and now most weekends sees them taking off either to the coast or the hills and they spend much of their time walking.
“I managed a 12 mile round trip the other weekend,” John told me. “Who would’ve thought a few years ago that I’d ever do that!” He’s heading for the mountains next weekend and planning a trip next year to explore the islands off the West Coast of Scotland where they plan to have many long walks! The benefits are clear. John is a healthier, happier man. Although he still worries about things, his daily walk always sorts him out and his weekend breaks do him a power of good!
“He may be over-emotional, over-sensitive – so afraid of hurting others or of being disliked, that he becomes a ‘door-mat’ a ‘yes-man.’ And so he loses even more self-respect and the vicious spiral downwards continues.”
“Consider the Mood Table as a barpmeter – gauge where your client is – the lower he is, the sicker – see where he needs to go. The higher he is the better – construct your strategies to help him get there.”
Both of the above quotes are from Lesson Eight of the Advanced Stress Management and Consultancy course by The School of Natural Health Sciences.
Case History 2 – “Helen”
24 year old Helen came to me after a break up with her long term boyfriend. I was shocked at the state she was in since I hadn’t seen her in some time. Upset, yes, but also clearly depressed. Apparently the relationship had deteriorated to such a level that, on several occasions, she found herself sitting on the floor weeping uncontrollably for no apparent reason. She knew things were not right and that she had to make the break. A final upsetting incident gave her the push she needed and she left, returning home to her parents. After a week or “hugging” herself, she opened up to me and talked over her problems. She was very stressed. Everything bothered her. Work was stressful, day to day living was a strain, she had no social life, she had lost touch with her friends during the disastrous relationship, she had no hobbies or interests, she had put on about 2 stone (13 kilos) or more in weight, she felt unwell, had no energy and just couldn’t be bothered doing anything. In fact, she’d completely lost interest in herself and life in general and her self esteem had dropped to rock bottom.
Amongst other things, I suggested she take a daily walk. “It could only be at night,” she said “ It only takes me five minutes to walk to work from my parent’s house and my lunch break is very short.” However, she thought about it and one evening, bored with T.V. she went out. “I hadn’t a clue where I was going,” Helen said. “I just walked and walked, round and round the streets for about half an hour, then I went home.” The following evening she did the same, and the next night. “I’ve only missed my walk one evening,” she reported the following week. “It was raining.”
“That’s good,” I replied. “Do you feel any better?”
“ I don’t know,” came the reply, “but I saw this guy last night who tripped up and he was staggering all over the place trying not to fall.” She smiled and laughed a little. Progress! There was a glimmer of hope there. “He was quite nice, actually, she mused. ”Maybe I’ll see him again tonight.”
Helen continued her half hour walks, mainly in the evening, but on her days off she went for longer walks during the day. Only two weeks later she reported feeling a lot better. Her spirits had lifted, she was feeling healthier and fitter than she had for a long time and she was coping with her job a lot better and she was beginning to make friends with some of her workmates.
“Best of all,” she said, “I’ve felt my clothes getting a bit looser, so I started to eat more healthily and you know what? I jumped on the scales and I’ve lost half a stone! I’m really looking forward to my holidays now!” I asked where she was going. “I’m going camping up in North West of Scotland with my parents. I’m hoping to get in some good long walks while I’m away. I might even climb a mountain. I haven’t done that for years!”
On her return Helen reported she hadn’t climbed a mountain. Conditions weren’t right, but she’d had a long walk every day she was away. She felt great and ready to take life on again. She certainly looked a lot better. A week later she’d had a walk most evenings and she told me she’d put a notice up on her bedroom wall saying, “Life is for living. Get off your bum!”
Six months later, Helen has done just that. She’s stuck to her walking plan and she’s had a few walking weekends away. She has lost all the weight she’d gained and a few pounds more besides. She’s made new friends and renewed friendships which had lapsed and now has a busy social life. “Sometimes I just don’t have time for my walk, but I always make up for it the next day. Besides I’ve been getting quite a bit of exercise with all the dancing I’ve been doing every time I go to a nightclub!”
She’s even met another young man who is showing quite a bit of interest. “But I don’t want anything too serious over the next few years. That would complicate things. Oh, didn’t I tell you? I’ve decided I want to work as a lawyer, so I’m off to University next year to do an extra qualification. I posted my application yesterday. I’ve got so much going for me and I’ve wasted enough of my life.”
She has no intention of giving up her healthy lifestyle and walking in the fresh air. “I won’t let myself slide back into the bad old way of living or let anyone take advantage of me as my old partner did. I never want to feel like that again!” Helen had gone from almost rock bottom on the Mood Scale to way up top!
Walking has to be one of the best, if not the best, stress-busting activity. It combines all the benefits of aerobic exercise with all the pleasures of being in the great outdoors which introduces a multitude of other natural therapies and the stimulation of all our senses with all the benefits that brings. Not only that but it’s all for FREE. Mother Nature is clever indeed. Answers and healing powers are out there if only people would bother to go and look. Nature has given us our legs and beautiful places to walk. So what are you waiting for? As Helen says, “Get off your bum! Life is for living!”
There follows a Bibliography and list of websites used for internet research, but much of the research done was practical and much information has been drawn from many, many years spent walking, mainly in the U.K. The piece was written with heartfelt thanks to the trees in the forests and the sea which saw my through the “dark years” of my own M.E. illness.and, on a lighter note, the makers of Scarpa walking boots!
Professional Relaxation Therapy course, The School of Natural Health Sciences
Stress Management course, The School of Natural Health Sciences
Advanced Stress Management and Consultancy course, The School of Natural Health Sciences
The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis, et al
Rambler’s guide “Ben Nevis and Glen Coe” by Chris Townsend, The Rambler’s Association
100 best Routes on Scottish Mountains by Ralph Storer
Unlock Your Potential by Liz Wilde
Managing Workplace Stress by Stephen Williams and Lesley Cooper
Camping and Caravanning, the magazine of The Camping and Caravanning Club
The Caravan Club magazine
Scotland in Trust, the National Trust for Scotland magazine
Here’s Health magazine
TGO The Great Outdoors magazine
Various publications and leaflets by The Forestry Commission and Forest Enterprise – too numerous to list.
Ordinance Survey Maps
Harvey’s Walking Maps
U.K. Digital Maps