“In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir
So, has this kind of thing ever happened to you? For some mysterious reason, the alarm just doesn’t go off, and now you’re starting off in a wild rush to catch up with the morning routine. In the dash to get showered, dressed, and off to work, things are dropped and fumbled, toes are stubbed, dogs bark, babies cry, and keys positively refuse to be found! The universe itself seems to be conspiring against you! You know then and there it’s going to be one of “those days.” It’s happened to me numerous times, and I’ve noticed that it doesn’t usually seem to get better as the day progresses. Add in too much traffic, too many phones, ridiculous deadlines, and endless interruptions, and it all gets to be too much for the average person to handle pretty quickly.
For years, I worked at an ad agency — a pretty high-pressure environment in and of itself — and “those days” came around pretty often. I tried numerous coping strategies to try to remain calm at work: taking a 5-minute mental vacation, deep breathing, a little Tai Chi in the powder room. I found all of these to be somewhat successful, but for me, the effects didn’t last long enough to get me through the next deadline crisis. Trust me, you can only mentally repeat “serenity now” so many times before giving up and running out the door — which was often exactly what I did!
One of my tricks to regain my sanity used to be to drive to a nearby park and take a short walk around the perimeter at lunchtime. It never failed to put things back in perspective and recharge my coping skills. I knew exercise was an effective stress buster. What I didn’t know was the real secret — where I chose to walk! I didn’t know it then but had I chosen to simply take a walk around the office block, I wouldn’t have gotten the same results at all. Science is finally finding out why.
Scientists have known for some time that physical activity is a very effective way to shut down the body’s stress response and release pent-up anxiety. Part of its success lies in the zen-inducing rhythmic, repetitive movements of things like walking, swimming, running, and cycling. When runners talk about being “in the zone,” it’s not a metaphor — they’re actually entering an alternate consciousness induced by the soothing, repetitive motion.
But another part of the magic of taking a simple walk in the park lies in shifting your thoughts from what caused your stress to the environment around you instead. It gives the brain a break from its endless ruminating, that is, going round and round thinking all of the things that frustrated you in the first place! And that’s why getting out of an urban environment and into a green space can be such a powerful weapon against stress. It gives your brain a break and lets it rest!
A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine used mobile electroencephalography (EEG) to analyze what happened brain-wise when a group of people walked in a park-like environment as opposed to a more urban one. For the study, the group began walking in a shopping district and then walked through a park area. They ended the experiment by once again walking through an urban area with lots of traffic and noise.
What researchers found was quite surprising. The EEG showed the brain entered a meditative state while walking, but only when walking through the green space! Participants showed a reduction in frustration, while the exact same brain activity that’s associated with meditation increased. Researchers theorize that the urban areas require more focused mental attention, which doesn’t allow the brain to take a mental vacation while walking.
Those same sports medicine researchers also found that when the brain ruminates, it gets overwhelmed and fatigued. This new urban-caused condition is what happens when the brain is constantly bombarded with incoming information and tasks. It’s been common knowledge among scientists that our brains’ ability to remain calm and focused is indeed limited. The daily noise, hassles with traffic and crowds, combined with the need to constantly check our phones for news, email, and social media leave the brain exhausted and unable to focus. So, being able to regain balance is becoming an essential skill as humans continue to become more and more urban.
Maybe it’s time we indulged ourselves, once again, in the sheer soothing joy of taking a walk in the park at lunchtime or planning an evening constitutional after dinner at a nearby greenbelt. It’s more than just getting out into the fresh air — it’s seeing green spaces again, and experiencing silence again. Our minds need time to rest and rejuvenate. A long time ago, the famous naturalist, John Muir stated, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” Over a hundred years later, that observation is truer than ever.
Author bio – Nancy DaPonte is a freelance copywriter who writes with passion about health, wellness, and mindfulness. Favorite things include: pumpkins in the autumn, hydrangeas in the summer, and chocolate anytime.