Does walking in a city have any benefits, or is it better to find some woodland? This is what the research says.
I picture myself walking through a nature reserve, a gravelled trail under my feet, the light slowly rising over treetops. I imagine the sound of birds and the wind brushing through bare branches and taking in a deep breath of crisp air. Instead, I open my door for my government-mandated daily walk and remember that I live in London. I’m walking on concrete and pavement – taking in the views of brick houses and office blocks while listening to the sound of cars driving by and people talking on their phones.
I’m considered one of the lucky ones, as I live within walking distance to a park. I can schlepp down grey roads and eventually land in an open green space. But I’m not alone – every other Londoner appreciates their park just as much as me, meaning that I am darting on and off pathways to avoid brushing shoulders with unmasked walkers.
I’m looping the same route, around the same grass, time and time again. Let’s be honest, I’m still looking up at skyscrapers and even dodging cars that drive around the outskirts of the open space. It’s not exactly the walking atmosphere I have in mind when the mental health benefits of walking are discussed, as frankly, I feel stressed having to dodge people and stop at traffic lights. Plus, I imagine that a city is not the best place to walk for my lungs.
But is it still beneficial to step away from my laptop at 6pm every day for a stroll through the concrete jungle, or am I better off just sat inside – away from all the pollution and noise? Well let’s start with the physical benefits. “Any movement is good movement, and if it’s a choice between going for a walk on a street and not going for a walk at all then you should take the walk on the street,” says Pennie Varvarides, a personal trainer and strength coach.
Right now, that is more important than ever, as we are missing out additional steps that we accrue through our commute, popping out for lunch and running for the bus. Getting out around your block is at least some form of movement that comes with cardiovascular, respiratory and pain-easing benefits.
In a 2020 study by the University of Virginia, researchers compared walking in nature, walking on a treadmill in a gym environment, and watching a nature video. They found that there was no significant difference in the average heart rate between the walking groups, suggesting equal cardiovascular benefits. Essentially, a walk is a walk, and your body doesn’t know the difference between concrete, grass and a conveyer belt. The only exception could be that cities tend to be flat, whereas a country walk might come with more challenging terrain – leading to an increase in cardiovascular and muscle growth.
As any form of movement comes with physical benefits, most walks also have mental benefits. According to a 2019 study published in Environmental Research and Public Health, a 50 min walk in any location makes a positive impact on acute measures of mental health. The 2020 study mentioned before also found that all types of walking had the power to significantly decrease cortisol levels.
While both studies found that any walking supports our mental health, walking in nature had more of an impact: the 2019 research found that a 50 min walk in a forest amplifies the acute mental health benefits of walking, even when participants had to drive 20 minutes to and from the green location (although this may not be applicable now, as we are only allowed to exercise close to home). The 2020 report also states that when people are under more stress, walking in nature results in the largest decrease in cortisol levels.
“I feel like there is some connection between us and the planet,” says Pennie. “When we are in nature, it makes us feel more grounded. I feel very lucky that I live in a pretty place and I’m able to go on a walk in nature whenever I feel like it. It’s really helped me through lockdown.”
If you, like me, only have access to city parks rather than rural nature, a piece of research from the Stockholm Environment Institute in 2019 is interesting to know about. The researchers compared walking in urban green, urban quiet and urban busy settings (essentially, a city park, a residential area in a city and a main street in a city). They found that, while participants were more relaxed in the green areas and the quiet streets than they were in the busy areas, there wasn’t much difference between the two. So, it turns out, you can reap benefits by just walking around a quiet neighbourhood block in order to relax if you can’t reach a green forest.
However, we can’t underplay pollution when it comes to city strolls. Researchers from the University of Cambridge noted that an increase in the intake of air pollution for active commuters (ie cycling or walking to work) could lead to negative health consequences. However, they concluded that for those who live in areas with the global average urban pollution concentration, the benefits of outside physical activity far outweigh the risks. Plus, in a lot of cities, there is less of a ‘rush hour’ right now, as the daily commute has all but disappeared.
“If it is really horrible where you live, and your only options are to walk along busy dual carriageways, you can find ways of getting your steps of movement indoors,” says Pennie. “Alternatively, you can get yourself a turbo stand and put your bike on it so you can cycle in your living room instead of being outside.”
Ultimately, any walk is a good walk – whether it means dodging crowds or crossing a lot of roads. Just make sure you are safe when entering crowded public spaces - even if they are outdoors - by avoiding busy times and wearing a mask. And if you can only face a loop around the block? You’re still doing good, even if it isn’t the high-treed woodland you dream of.