Lower cholesterol, increased cardiovascular fitness, a reduction in body fat and boost in muscle power. The physical benefits of walking are obvious – plain to see even. What’s far less measurable, but perhaps of even greater importance, is the mental side of things, and it’s only in the last decade that this has started to really be explored.
Back in 2010, in a controlled trial for the Journal of Physical and Activity, three academics asked one group of people to walk 10,000 steps a day for 12 weeks while another group was asked to maintain their usual activity. The results that came back for the group that had been walking showed a raft of physical improvements but also indications of personal growth and psychological wellbeing.
According to the mental health charity Mind, physical activity like walking can help to improve everything from your sleep to your mood, manage stress, anxiety and intrusive thoughts, better self-esteem, and reduce the risk of depression.
So walking is good, but what about walking long distances?
“A long-distance journey makes me calmer, more grounded and more mindful,” says Ursula Martin, a prolific wanderer who has chalked up thousands of miles over the last five years, most notably walking all the way from Kiev to her home in mid Wales.
“A big hike that you have to abandon yourself to will show you who you are, for good and bad, and give you the chance to appreciate your strengths and change your weaknesses in equal measures; both things, I think, are valuable for better mental health.
“All my walks have been rewarding in different ways but the first one, the time I just decided to set out walking and follow a river from sea to source, was the biggest adventure. I had a tiny map of the whole county, no mobile phone, and I just followed my nose, made it up as I went along, and it was a wild sense of exploration the entire way. That opened up a whole new way of life for me.”
For James Forrest, a writer who’s carved out a living from sharing his hiking adventures, the mental health benefits from long-distance walking come, in part, from the escapism.
“Modern life can be stressful. It’s all deadlines and responsibilities, money and paperwork, pinging emails and blaring TVs,” says James. “But heading out for a long distance walk, you can escape all of this. It’s good for the soul. It’s time for solitude, self-reflection and quiet.”
“It will clear my head, help me solve problems that have been bothering me for ages, or simply enable me to unwind and de-stress. I find the process of putting one foot in front of the other both therapeutic and healing. It puts things in perspective too.”
Another person who testifies to that escapism element of long distance walking is Becky Angell who’s just returned from a solo hike across the 268-mile Pennine Way. She says that with “so much going on” in her life her mental health “really has time to take a proper break from any worries or negative thoughts” that she will have had prior to any trips.