Walking benefits: “What walking every day during the Christmas break taught me about my mental health”

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Stylist’s Lauren Geall reveals how forcing herself to go outside for a walk every day over Christmas transformed how she takes care of her mental health.

I am not what you would call an “outdoorsy person”.

I’m lucky to live in an area surrounded by beautiful countryside, but if you gave me the choice between trudging through the woods in the rain or curling up on the sofa with a book, I’d undoubtedly pick the latter.

That was, until lockdown. From March and throughout the summer months, I spent a lot of my free time outside walking with my mum, sister and dog. Whether we were strolling along the beach or going for a hike, for the first time in my life, I made a habit of being outdoors – and my mental health was all the better for it. 

When winter arrived, however, I’m ashamed to say I let things slip. It was easy to enjoy getting active outdoors when the weather was nice and the evenings were light, but as the days grew shorter and the temperature dropped, the prospect of heading out for a long walk became less appealing. The habit I had forged during the first lockdown slowly disappeared.

It took the arrival of lockdown 2.0 and the realisation that I hadn’t left the house in weeks to make me understand something needed to change. So against my natural instinct to curl up and see through the winter months underneath the comfort of my weighted blanket, I made a pledge to myself – over the Christmas break, I would go for a walk every single day.

Most days, I headed out with my mum, sister and dog, just like in the first lockdown. We mixed up our destination – some days we’d drive to the beach and walk along the sand until our legs grew tired, while others we would mooch about our local area, spotting Christmas lights and chatting about whatever came to mind. It was definitely cold and a little bit muddy, but we made the most of it by wrapping up in as many jumpers as possible and donning our chunkiest boots.  

Marlowe the cockapoo
Walking benefits: "Most days, I headed out with my mum, sister and dog, just like in the first lockdown."

Two weeks later, and I’m here to say it was one of the best decisions I made in 2020. Sure, there were some days when wrapping up and heading outside may not have been my first choice, but the physical and mental health benefits of regular, everyday exercise in the open air made it so, so worth it.

One of the main reasons for this was the mood-boost I got after every walk. I definitely didn’t start all my walks ready and raring to go (in fact some days it was a challenge to even get out the door), but at some point during the walk there’d always be a shift – a moment when, despite my disbelief, I actually started to enjoy it. The impact may not have been miraculous, but it made a big difference during a time when the pressure of the pandemic and changing restrictions made it hard to stay positive.

On top of this, there was the simple fact that getting outside and moving my body provided a massive boost for my mental wellbeing. We’ve all heard experts talk about how valuable exercising in nature can be for our mental health, but it’s not until you do it every day for an extended period of time that you start to realise quite how right they are. On days when I was feeling anxious (which have happened a lot more often recently), walking gave me something to focus on and take my mind off things for an hour or so.

Indeed, at a time of year when it’s so easy to feel cooped up and suffocated by the short days and miserable weather, going outside was – quite literally – a breath of fresh air, even when it seemed like the most unappealing prospect.  

All of this isn’t to minimise the physical benefits of my walking experiment, of which there were a lot. As Stylist’s fitness editor Meriam Ahari previously discovered during a walking holiday in the Lake District, “going for a walk” can be a lot more of a workout than you realise. And while my walks were nowhere near as strenuous as hiking up and down the hills of  north-west England, there were still plenty of moments when I could feel my heart begin to pump faster and my muscles begin to burn. 

Walking benefits: "At a time of year when it’s so easy to feel cooped up and suffocated by the short days and miserable weather, going outside was – quite literally – like a breath of fresh air, even when it seemed like the most unappealing prospect."

As someone who tends to shy away from exercise (I’m as far from the sporty type as you can imagine), it felt amazing to finally appreciate the joy of moving my body.

Last, and by no means least, I enjoyed spending so much quality time with my family. Working from home has meant an exorbitant amount of screen time, so getting the opportunity to spend some time away from a laptop or phone and talk about everything and nothing was a welcome one. 

Now I’m back at work after the Christmas break, I’m not going to lie and pretend that I’m fitting hour-long walks into my daily schedule. But I have made it a priority to try and get outside for a walk every day during daylight hours, even if it’s just for 10 minutes before work or during my lunch break. 

If lockdown during the winter months has taught me anything, it’s that getting outside – no matter what the weather is looking like – is one of the best things I can do for my mental health. 

It may not be the most impressive form of exercise, and it’s far from some fancy studio workout, but right now, walking is exactly what my mind and body needs.  

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Images: Lauren Geall

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