The South West Coast Path as it leaves Talland Bay in Cornwall.

The South West Coast Path as it leaves Talland Bay in Cornwall. Image © Helen Hotson/Shutterstock.com.

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Nature and wellbeing: the healing power of a walk

Whether it's scaling a mountain or making the journey in your local park, the simple act of walking, and experiencing nature, has numerous physical and mental health benefits.

We spoke to Raynor Winn, author of The Salt Path, who reflected on the restorative power of a walk.

As the pandemic has changed lives across the globe, many more of us have found solace in going for a wander in nature - in whatever way we can - and felt the enjoyment and respite that it can bring.

Moving our bodies in nature is a proven mood booster, and it's been shown that listening to bird song is good for us. The act of walking also a huge role to play in our physical health, wellbeing, and even our future. 

A path running through greenery in the Staffordshire moorlands.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of easy access to green space for mental and physical health. Image: Staffordshire Moorlands © Laura Jacklin

Hiking for health

Greek physician Hippocrates declared that walking is the best medicine more than 2,000 years ago, and more recently it has been described as a near-perfect physical activity.

According to the walking charity Ramblers, physical benefits of regular walking include boosting the immune system, improving the flexibility of joints, muscles and bones, and reducing the risk of certain cancers. Walking can help to maintain a healthy weight and lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Not only are the physical benefits numerous, walking is also safe, free, and accessible for many people.

'It was instinctively what we needed to do,' says author Raynor Winn. In the span of just a few days in 2013, she had lost her home and livelihood and received the news that her husband Moth was terminally ill with a rare degenerative brain disease, which has an average life expectancy of six to eight years from onset.

Faced with an uncertain future and nothing to their names, they made a snap decision to walk 630 miles (1,014 kilometres) along the South West Coast Path National Trail, wild camping along the way. The path begins at Minehead in Somerset, runs along the coast of Devon and Cornwall, and ends at Poole Harbour in Dorset. 

A portrait of Raynor Winn

Raynor Winn and her partner Moth walked 630 miles along the South West Coast Path.

Raynor says, 'There was something about the idea of putting your rucksack on your back and just following a line on the map, and being in the natural world, all day every day. I just instinctively knew that somewhere in that, we'd find a way forward'.

On finishing the path, Raynor documented their experience in what became a bestselling book, The Salt Path. It tells the tale of their journey and reveals the immense transformative power that walking in nature had on their lives. After walking many kilometres along undulating cliffs (the height climbed on the South West Coast Path is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest four times), they noticed improvements in Moth's condition.  

One night while camping on the beach, the couple were woken up by the sounds of the waves approaching the tent, forcing them to quickly grab everything they owned and run to escape the oncoming tide.

'We realised that Moth had gone from barely being able to put his coat on without help just a few weeks earlier to actually running up the beach holding this tent above his head with his rucksack on his back,' Raynor recalls. 'It was one of those moments in life that just feels like a miracle. That thing you've been told that could never happen - and it does.'

Although Raynor acknowledges that walking such great distances isn't for everybody, for Moth, it has helped keep his health on a plateau. 'We have to spend as much time outside and walking as we can, because that's the thing that helps more than anything else.'

Heddon Mouth on the South West Coast Path between Lynton and Combe Martin.

Heddon Mouth on the South West Coast Path between Lynton and Combe Martin. Image © Peter Turner Photography/Shutterstock.com.

Physical improvements weren't the only transformations that Raynor and Moth noticed on the path. She describes the experience as almost a 'walking meditation' that allowed them to find hope and strength from their desperate situation.

'After we'd walked maybe 200 miles [320 kilometres], there was a point where we just looked back across the headland that we'd walked around, and realised that the real, visceral sense of anxiety and pain that we'd felt at the beginning of that walk had gone.

'We could feel it, but it was more the memory of it than the actual rawness of the emotion that we'd felt at the start. And that was the walking that allowed that to happen. The simple act of one foot in front of the other. Just focusing on the next step allowed that pain and anger to fade away.'

Mountains for the Mind

In recent years, it feels as though a new public right of way has been opened for conversations around mental health. Close to one billion people worldwide are living with a mental disorder, and statistics show that during the pandemic, one in five adults in the UK have been experiencing some form of depression.

In January 2019, walking magazine Trail launched a charity campaign, Mountains for the Mind.

'The team had noticed that so many more people were starting to be very open about the reasons that they went outside,' says Oli Reed, editor of Trail Magazine. 'They noticed that a lot of people were using it as a release and to shake off the troubles of day-to-day life'.

Although not everyone can head out for a hike, it has been proven that even seeing trees outside a window or quietly listening to birdsong can have a profound effect on our health.

Studies have shown that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature can lead to improved health and wellbeing.

If you can safely go for a walk, the benefits are boosted further.

Oli says, 'We want to promote wilderness, mountains, hills, really getting out into nature as something that could really help people.'

A stone among leaves that reads, 'Leave only footprints'.

A variety of nature experiences are good for mental health, not just walking. Seeing and hearing natural noises and landscapes can have a positive physical effect. Image © Laura Jacklin.

Mountains for the Mind has grown into a community of over 11,000 people who turn to hillwalking to help manage their mental health, share their experiences and go on group walks in the mountains.

There are countless stories from members who have suffered a range of mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, bulimia and PTSD. All have been able to find solace and purpose in physical activity outdoors.

'I can lose myself in whatever activity I'm doing, and for a time have some peace from negative thoughts,' says Leigh Kember, a trainee outdoor instructor and member of Mountains for the Mind. 'There's a unique relationship between the soul and nature.'

Noticing nature

Walking can help us recognise this complex connection to nature. We hike over the same Earth that grows the plants that power our bodies over many miles. We follow rivers and streams that carry the same water we carry with us to keep us hydrated. Walking also places us directly in the world around us, exposing us to the sounds, smells and sights of nature.

The connection between us and nature is something that Raynor has continued to explore since finishing the South West Coast Path. It is a connection that has proved vital for many of us during the pandemic's lockdowns, when much of normal life has been completely uprooted.

'Even if we've been in an urban place, we've still been able to put our head out of the window and hear the birds sing, in a way that we might not have done before,' Raynor says.

'The birds are always singing, they are always there, but usually there is so much noise that we just can't hear it. And that's how I see our connection with nature: it's always there, we always need it, we just don't always recognise it.'

The very reason for the lockdowns has also served as a pertinent reminder that we are vulnerable to nature's changes. We know that protecting nature is essential for our future, with the health of humanity relying on a healthy environment.

Walking in nature can be vital in helping us to look after ourselves. Could the closer connection to nature we forge through walking help us to look after nature itself? Raynor believes so: 'I really feel that by walking, it puts us in nature. If we don't experience nature then we can't see it as being as precious as it is, because we can't connect to it enough to want to save it.'

Fancy a walk?