Talking can help us find a way through problems – but do it while moving and it becomes even more useful
Words: Euan Ferguson
Photography: Helena Dolby
One foot in front of the other, and repeat. It seens the simplest of human actions, as casually performed as eating or blinking, but the feet are complex structures that contain a quarter of all the bones in our bodies. First steps are a milestone of development and most of us take them before we manage many more complex actions. We’re told to take 10,000 of them a day to stay healthy. Walking is the fundamental form of travel, but it’s more than that. It’s fundamental to our wellbeing. It’s clear that it helps us physically – from lowering blood pressure to supporting the joints – but what’s increasingly recognised is the benefits it has on mental health. And there’s a growing movement that’s taking this a step further: if walking’s good for the mind, and therapy’s good for the mind, then walking therapy could be even better.
At its heart is the literal translation of the Latin phrase solvitur ambulando – ‘it is solved by walking’ – and many of humankind’s greatest thinkers have sworn by it. Charles Darwin had his ‘thinking path’ in the gardens of his home at Down House, Kent. Charles Dickens was a dedicated stroller, covering miles every day and making his characters do the same. Rebecca Solnit, in her pedestrianism opus Wanderlust, describes the connection between the brain and the feet beautifully: ‘Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.’
This is a meandering way of setting up the fact that I am standing in a remote forest called Bottom Moor on the edge of the Peak District with Ruth Allen, a counsellor and founder of White Peak Wellbeing and the author of Grounded: How Connection with Nature Can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing. I wanted to find out more about the power of talking and outdoor movement, so of course we’re going to go for a walk to chat about it. She’s been meeting her clients in places like this since 2015 and is passionate about the difference walking can make to the mind.
It’s a warm day and the flowers and bushes around us are heavy with bees and insects. As we set off on a path through the trees I ask her what to expect from our hour. How is walking therapy different from the traditional kind, which usually involves the therapist sitting opposite their client in a room? There are probably armchairs,
and there may be a plant or two. ‘It changes certain aspects,’ she says. ‘When we’re outside there’s a kind of mutuality – it’s not my space, it’s not yours, stuff is happening, other people are around. That’s quite different from an indoor setting, where I might be getting you from a waiting room and bringing you into “my” space. We just become two humans walking.’
I think of counselling settings I’ve been in, and the perennial awkwardness during silences. But out here, with birdsong and weather and mushrooms and scurrying creatures, I don’t feel any pressure to fill the gaps, even though Ruth and I have just met. ‘It’s less intense,’ she says. ‘There are things to distract us, so we don’t always feel the pressure to talk.’
We’re not starting a formal therapist-client relationship here, so I’m just getting a taster of what it could be like. I find it pretty easy to talk about my life out here: short-term goals, work worries, sense of self – the things that keep most of us awake. Somehow when the words are let out into the great outdoors, they seem less daunting. But Ruth points out that it’s not just the nature that’s helping – the walking is too.
‘I’m interested in the aspect of forward movement,’ she says. ‘Not everyone goes to counselling to make changes in their life, but they might want to process things or work things through… We don’t go to counselling to go backwards. We go for change. So moving is a powerful embodied metaphor.’
There’s real science to back this up. In 2014 two Stanford University researchers published a paper on the positive effect on creative thinking. ‘Walking opens up the free flow of ideas,’ it states. It suggests walking may relax memory suppression, so allows more associative ideation. And therapy or counselling is at its core a creative process – finding new ways to deal with life’s problems. (The study also showed that walking outdoors was more effective than walking indoors, so blessedly those treadmill desks are not the solution.)
It strikes me that walking for walking’s sake, as well as being an act of individual enrichment, is also radical. It doesn’t have a goal, which in this productivity-focused age is subversive. It doesn’t involve buying anything, which in this consumerist age is subversive. It’s free and democratic, which is considered dangerous by some. And so by freely inhabiting this radical space, walkers are reminded of their autonomy and agency in the world. I can feel the effectiveness.
During my session today I haven’t covered miles, or scaled mountains, or been wowed by spectacular views. This part of Derbyshire is more isolated than any town or city, for sure, and although the lack of human noise and wild nature leads to a greater sense of tranquility, we’re essentially doing something most of us can do. While an hour of structured strolling with a professional like Ruth would undoubtedly be useful for anyone and everyone, this isn’t always available. But the benefits are still there if you go for a jaunt in the park with a thoughtful friend, or even carve out a bit of time alone and spend it on foot rather than on your phone. I’m not saying it’ll cure all your ills, but it’s a step in the right direction.