This article is provided by Exmoor resident, Gemma Gates, who is a freelance writer and mother with a passion to improve our mental health. Her previous role involved healthcare in business management and she tries to draw on her experiences to inform her writing, focusing here on the many interesting aspects about how and why being active on Exmoor can improve your health and wellbeing on so many levels – physical and mental. As Lucy McQuillan, Exmoor’s Moor to Enjoy Project Coordinator says “Our National Parks are such great natural NHS’s! Once you’ve read the article, contact me to find out what support there is available to bring a group out to Exmoor and experience all the below points for yourself – Exmoor National Park is good for you!”
Living in a nation that is in the grip of an obesity crisis means the physical health benefits of walking are well known: walking increases your heart rate, helping to improve your strength and endurance whilst lowering your cholesterol levels and contributing to weight loss (in conjunction with a healthy and balanced diet, of course). However, what is less widely acknowledged are the benefits that walking can have on your mental health and wellbeing too.
The beautiful and varied terrain of Exmoor makes it a wonderful place to take a walk. Whether you want to explore the stark beauty of the moors, meander through the region’s 9,000 hectares of woodland, or stroll around historic Dunster Castle, there are plenty of wonderful options available, regardless of whether you are a keen and experienced rambler or a novice walker. The UK Chief Medical Officers recommend that all adults enjoy at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity every week – this breaks down to just a 30 minute walk a week; alternatively you could enjoy an extended brisk walk over the weekend. Not only will you feel healthier and reinvigorated, you will also
Improve Mood and Reduce the Risk of Developing Depression
The endorphins released by walking can help to lift your mood, which is why individuals who are physically active on a regular basis are 30% less likely to experience depression than those who live sedentary lifestyles. If you already suffer from depression, then engaging in regular physical exercise can also aid your recovery, and give you the cognitive boost you need to prevent relapse. An extra benefit of walking outside is that you are exposed to vitamin D, which has been shown to lessen the likelihood of developing depressive symptoms and suffering from the condition. There’s a reason why so many doctors prescribe taking a long walk outdoors to patients that present with the blues: taking a wonderful nature walk can provide an instant mood boost! [Editor’s Note: this is a key reason for Exmoor NPA’s Moor to Enjoy Project – click here for more details once you’ve finished reading the article!)
Improve Self Confidence and Reduce Anxiety
The chemicals that the body releases when you exercise can actually help you to calm down if you are feeling stressed or suffering from anxiety. Psychologists conducted extensive research to discover how exercise can relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression. They found a 10-minute walk can have just as many anxiety-relieving properties as a 45-minute workout. This isn’t a permanent solution, but just as taking a painkiller can provide several hours of temporary relief from a headache, so can exercising provide several hours of temporary relief from anxiety. What’s more, walking away from your computer or TV screens provides a great opportunity for self-reflection, to build up your self-esteem and develop self-compassion. Taking time away from the stimulation of modern life to be alone with your own thoughts can be incredibly enriching, and provides a great opportunity to build your own confidence: to think about the direction you would like to move it, and to assess the achievements and accomplishments you have already made. If you are suffering from low self-esteem and want to build your self-confidence then exercise can prove a very effective form of therapy.
Prevent Age-related Cognitive Decline
Finally, another reality is the aging process can have a very real and significant impact on mental health. As Alzheimer’s Research UK states: “We can’t change our age or our genes and there is currently no way we can completely prevent dementia. However, there may be some simple things we can all do that might help lower our risk.” Risk factors for cardiovascular disease (like heart disease and stroke) are also risk factors for dementia. So leading a healthy lifestyle and plenty of exercise helps reduce the risks for both! Exercise can help ensure the brain is as robust as possible, meaning that the cognitive decline often experienced after the age of 45 can be slowed down. Research has found the taking daily activity, such as walking, between the ages of 25 and 45 boosts the chemicals in the brain that both support the development of and prevent the degeneration of the hippocampus, which is an important part of the brain for memory and learning.
Enjoying a walk provides a wonderful opportunity for enrichment and self-reflection away from the hustle and bustle of your everyday life. Ideal for anyone who wishes to experience an immediate boost to their mood and overall mental health!