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August 25, 2021

7 Powerful Ways Walking, Hiking & Being in Nature can Impact our Lives.

 

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There’s this euphoric feeling that comes after a good walk or hike in nature.

When we’re living the day-to-day rat race of life—work, school, busyness, keeping up with everything and everyone—walking or being outdoors is like a breath of fresh air to our entire being. Daily walks around the block, or even hitting the trails on the weekend, is enough to wake us up to different areas of our lives that cause us to live surface-deep. 

Kind of like breathing shallowly. 

It’s probably fair to say we were born to move. 

To be amongst the trees. Maybe even barefoot, allowing the dirt to pull us back down to earth.

The most significant changes to humanity are our way of transportation, how we work (sitting down a lot), and technology. And as awesome as this is, constantly looking down at our phones, our sedentary lifestyles, and ease of movement via vehicles may rob us of the most basic level of well-being.

But this isn’t just about exercise—it’s about the acquisition of stillness and why it benefits our lives.

It’s about allowing room to breathe—and the impact of oxygen on our brain and mind.

Deeper than that, the beauty of allowing our brain time to rest, explore the unknown, and immerse in spontaneous, unplanned activity by virtue of walking and nature.

But why?

Striving and pushing for things seems to be a popular method. Willpower and endless hours of work have been glorified, even at the cost of relationships, well-being, and spiritual development. It’s almost this “do it at all cost” way of being. And while we may achieve great success in one area of our life, it can cause us to unnecessarily sacrifice other areas.

We’ve also become incredibly good at being stressed—and on—all the time.

So much so, that when we unwind, step back, and indulge in activities without any “end game,” it can be challenging to let go. We may experience guilt, anxiety, or worry that we “should” be doing more. When we stay in this fast lane, the slow lane almost becomes—too slow.

Therefore, it’s a practice—a practice to be mindful and participate in an activity that allows us to sink into the parts of ourselves that are shut off due to busyness or a lack of inner stillness.

In our society, we promote a way of living and thinking that can dull the creative genius within, our inner healing powers, and our connection to intuition. The quiet, pure, voice that does not demand attention—it simply awaits our attention. 

Every one of us has potential, and we are often inhibited by noise, distraction, and our current level of conscious awareness. Without deliberate intention to go beneath the surface of who we are currently, we may end up living life on autopilot—and wonder why things never seem to change, grow, or evolve past a certain point.

The cycle of addiction pervades many corners of the world—the obvious one’s come to mind. But what about the hidden addictions, the ones we lose ourselves in daily? The things we do to escape time, to dull our senses, to experience a moment of pure relief.

When I started walking, over a decade ago, I was a mess of a person, caught up in the wrong crowd, filled with pain and regret, and estranged from my family. I was completely and utterly lost. The world weighed heavily on my shoulders. Deep down, I knew it wasn’t the life I wanted. But I was ashamed, hurting, and I thought all hope was lost.

Until I started walking. (And praying—but that’s for another day).

At the time, I was obese and my fitness abilities were nonexistent. I was “that” unfit. I rolled my ankle walking around the block. I still have no idea to this day how a simple walk caused my ankle to blow up and turn purple—but I was desperate to change, and I kept walking.

For the past 13 years, I have consistently walked daily (give or take), and this simple practice has yielded benefits that far outweigh any other practice I have committed to. The results did not come overnight—in fact, the practice, the ongoing commitment to the act of being, that is where the answers have been found. And continue to be discovered.

Over the years, my life has changed dramatically in an amazing way due to walking and being—or moving without thinking too much. Immersing myself in nature, and the moment, have a big part to play in my healing, transformation, and self-discovery.

Opening up to the “unknown” parts of life to explore the hidden aspects of oneself, and to invite new levels of awareness consistently, allows us to experience the treasures of life that are not often obtained via external measures.

And, masters of stillness and creativity who have discovered an oasis that lives within us all—have walked.

Albert Einstein walked regularly, a sacred act he committed to daily. I mean, Einstein—do I need to say more?

Walking meditation is also a ritual of Buddhism, referred to as kinhina movement that is mentally effortless—the mind without conscious motion.

Jesus, an avid walker, a wanderer, speaks of a similar stillness I find in Buddhism, embracing the present and finding treasures in the lane of steady versus force.

As Ryan Holiday describes in his book, Stillness is the key, Jesus must have understood the act of placing one foot in front of another and the symbolism it represents. It’s a different kind of meditative state, one that can unlock a deeper part of ourselves, where we can tap into new levels within the mind and brain.

Walking, to me, is like bringing the mind, body, and spirit into alignment. I also believe we can engage in this togetherness without walking by also being in nature, exercising, or bringing our focus to the present moment. But for those of us who struggle to remain still, walking is an entrance to the world of mystery, and beyond.

I have explored the psychological, spiritual, and physical effects of walking and hiking in nature.

>> On the mind and brain, it can act as a calming stimulant that can decrease anxiety and stress (lowering cortisol levels). The endorphins that bubble in our brain during and after exercise can help with depression and mental fogginess. We can switch from autopilot to being present, helping us move out of survival mode and into a relaxed state of living. (Gould & Weignberg, 2015) 

>> The regular act of daily walking outdoors, or hiking, can be highly beneficial to our overall physical health—building fitness levels, protecting the heart against disease and stress, increasing energy overall, keeping our spine strong, and healthier blood due to oxygenation. (Gould & Weignberg, 2015) 

>> Spiritually, walking can be a practice that invites us to listen to our soul and intuition. The simple movement creates a rhythm in our being that can allow us to tune out chaotic thoughts and hear the silent whisper of our hearts. This is incredibly useful for decision-making, gaining perspective, self-care, and self-improvement.

Here are seven ways walking, hiking, or being in nature can impact our lives: 

1. A time to quieten our minds and settle into the truest version of ourselves.

For a moment, our logical voice and the opinions of others peel away as we melt into the rhythm of one step in front of the other. This allows ideas to freely flow to us—I like to call them insights or magical moments. We may also know them as “aha” moments, or the feeling when you “just know.”

These ideas may be an answer to a problem or question we have been deliberating over. They can bring about expansive solutions and strategies that allow us to live bigger and bolder, and not at the cost of what is valuable. If we’re ever feeling stuck in life—a walk or hike in nature can open us up to possibilities that will expand our life in positive and healthy ways.

2. Rewire our brain patterns

Walking calms the mind, kind of like meditation, whereby we can develop self-awareness. Honing this skill can help us understand unhealthy habits or barriers we are facing (ie: why we reach for certain foods, stay on social media too long, yoyo cycles). When we walk, we have an opportunity to hear what’s going on within us.

It can release anxious thoughts, and cleanse us of built-up tension and stress. When we’re feeling less stressed, emotional, and worried—making sustainable healthy changes becomes manageable. 

Rather than relying on sheer willpower and force to alter our habits, which can keep us trapped in yoyo-cycles, we can make changes and progress with a lot more ease.

Regular walking helps to organize the mind so we can systematically address habits. It can provide us with an abundance of energy to make changes, as well as the clarity to know what to do.

3. Our spiritual health can improve 

Everyone has a different view of spirituality—this is a general overview. Prayer and meditation can do wonders for us throughout our lives. However, sitting down and meditating, or praying, isn’t the only way to connect to our soul, God, or higher power. Sometimes, sitting down can feel forceful, especially if we are new to mediation or prayer.

Walking, hiking, or simply being outdoors can give us the same benefits as prayer and meditation. We are connecting with nature—a pure, untainted environment without worldly distractions.

In this fast-paced world, we may not want to take a moment to stop, contemplate, and just be. We may fear being left behind or going too slow in comparison to the rest of the world. We may tell ourselves we’ll have a break one day but life always seems to get in the way.

Making time for our spiritual health and our soul’s well-being weekly is essential for a wholesome, prosperous, and loving life. It’s like putting fuel in our car. It’s a time to fill up the tank so we can live life with balanced stamina, grace, and wellness.

Walking and hiking is a naturally easier way to lead ourselves into a meditative state. When we start walking and find ourselves building momentum, we can enter into a trancelike state of bliss. This can connect us straight to our souls.

4. Our work and productivity can improve—by doing less.

Action is always the key to progression. However, if we take action without regular breaks it can be counterintuitive. When our minds are busy around the clock, it may seem productive, but constant movement, striving, and mental chatter can blind us to better solutions, effectiveness in our work, and deep productivity. It may seem trendy to do more and never take a break, but it can be detrimental to our overall goals and output. (Rock, 2009)

This can be a struggle for those of us who avoid relaxing and doing nothing. Slots of downtime can revolutionize our life and work. The best part of walking or hiking is we can gain the benefits of doing nothing (mental rest and rejuvenation) while doing something.

Walking and hiking are active rest and recovery activities. We get the feeling of being proactive while allowing the brain adequate rest. It’s an opportunity to unwind, de-stress, recover our mind, refresh—and recalibrate. This is also ideal when we feel anxious about resting.

5. We’ll love the journey rather than waiting for the destination. 

When we approach our goals and want to achieve them as fast as possible without enjoying the steps along the way—we can miss the journey. Imagine looking back at life in your old age, wishing you enjoyed yourself more rather than always waiting for “one day.”

What’s the point of always hoping for the future and leaving the present untouched and unloved?

Many of us are rushing through the days from task to task without being present and soaking it in. While attending to one thing, our minds may be thinking of the million other things we need to do. We end our days fast and stressed, only to start another day in the same way.

Rather than wait for a long weekend or a holiday, we can take time each day to cultivate being present. When we teach ourselves to focus on the task at hand before moving on—and enjoy the process entirely—we enter a flow-like state. Being immersed in the present is not just about appreciation of the moment. Personally, I feel it lowers stress, anxiety, and worry. It brings us in touch with our true nature and floods our being with inner stillness.

In this mental state, our work deepens, our lives are grounded, and we feel more in control of our emotions.

Walking and hiking plant the deep desire to go slower, to be mentally present with everything we do, to take in our surroundings—and to soak in the journey rather than worry about the destination. When we are outdoors or on the trails surrounded by nature, it teaches us that everything happens in seasons.

By embracing the seasons, we can use this approach in our lives. Summer, like winter, autumn, and spring—comes around at different intervals. And all seasons work hand in hand at the right time. Just like life—there may be a time when we need to press the pedal and a time when we need to press the brake.

Learning this balance and how nature operates perfectly can easily be acquired by regular walks throughout the seasons.

6. We learn to breathe deeply 

Our brains need time to breathe.

Breathing is something we do without having to consciously think about it. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be conscious about how we are breathing—and whether our lifestyle is affecting the flow of our breath.

When we don’t breathe deeply over long periods it can signal to our brain that something is wrong—because we want to survive. We need a healthy dose of oxygen for our brains and minds to work at an optimal level. When we are deprived of deep, nourishing oxygen intake, it can affect us mentally (depression, anxiety, stress), spiritually (cut off from our connection to self and god), and physically (poor digestion, bad PMS, depression, anxiety). 

We may have started to breathe shallowly without realizing it. Some of the reasons I breathe shallowly:

>> Anxiety, overthinking 

>> Worry, dread, burnout

>> Tension, stress, franticness

>> Hunching over the computer

>> Working long hours without a break

>> Lack of exercise

>> Unhealed trauma (in the past)

>> Low energy

>> Unhealthy food (lack of plant foods)

>> Unrealistic expectations of myself and others

Stress can exacerbate in many ways, not just the obvious like a hard day at work. We may be walking through life with a stressed-out brain due to trauma, emotional pain, a lack of expression, being indoors too much, a lack of boundaries, or pain and injuries. Fear, worry about the future, perfectionism—these are also states of mind that can lead to pressure on the brain, and inadvertently affect how we breathe.

When we struggle with decision-making or double-mindedness, too much deliberating and procrastination can also affect our breathing.

Walking and hiking in nature can help us develop deep breathing. When we practice regular walks and hikes, we’ll develop a reference point of how it feels to breathe deeply. This may come over time if fitness levels are low.

The act of moving outdoors and allowing oxygen to enter into our being can help us to be more aware when we are breathing shallowly in everyday life. Being in tune with our breath also keeps us grounded, clear, and whole.

The brain needs oxygen. We all know this; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. But it also needs regular, consistent oxygen that is not stifled by stress.

7. We can dislodge our creative genius

By tapping into our creative genius and our inner voice, we’ll find solutions and methods to our life that allow us to focus on different areas in a balanced way—rather than follow the rat race and crowds, or heavily populated methods.

When we allow space in our lives, we are inherently saying, “I trust”—I trust solutions, ideas, and resolutions will visit me at the right time. Throughout my journey of walking and being immersed in the present, I have realized that there is an abundance of creative energy and answers awaiting my ears. The act of listening wasn’t something I set out to do. I stumbled on the oasis of mystery and discovery by regularly taking the time to empty the noise inside my mind, and this source never runs dry.

We’re just getting started on the magnitude of walking, stillness, and nature—and the benefits. But I’ll pause here, and be back soon with more treasure to explore together.

References:

Gould, D. & Weignberg, R. (2015), Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

Rock, D. (2009), Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.

Hsiu-Chin T., Mei-Ling Y. and Mei-Hua W. (2018). Walking with controlled breathing improves exercise tolerance, anxiety, and quality of life in heart failure patients: A randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing. 17(8). 717–727.

~

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