In fact, a brisk walk (unachievable in heels, unfortunately) can make you happier, calmer and more productive. Stylist delves into the world of walking therapy
Words: Helen Foster
“I’m just going to walk for a little while,” said every heartbroken hero in every Hollywood film ever, as they fade into the grey mist and ponder the perils of love.
Of course it’s a cliché, but walking to focus the mind, to work through issues, to exorcise mental demons, is one of the most natural instincts we possess.
A disastrous day in the office can be put into perspective by a brisk 30-minute walk home. Similarly, a two-hour ramble with a close friend can shed all sorts of light on a long-standing concern. And if you just need to collect yourself before a meeting, a walk around the block should do it.
The idea that exercise improves your mental health isn’t new; doctors have suggested we exercise to fight stress and depression for years (Lena Dunham recently revealed that she was exercising not to shrink her body but to head-shrink her mind, saying that her workouts helped her deal with anxiety). But a new school of thought believes walking (and running) isn’t just an effective mood booster but a genuinely useful tool in problem solving (both practical and emotional), idea generation and anger management.
It’s no surprise. As we pound the pavement on the way to work, a combination of bodily reactions occur that switch us into a place where we’re more emotional, more open and actually better at solving problems. Unsurprisingly sitting on a cramped bus doesn’t have the same effect. “Let’s start with the fact that when simply standing up, let alone moving, the brain increases the rate at which it fires by 7-10%, which in itself increases our ability to think faster and be more focused,” says Harvard psychiatrist Dr John Ratey, author of Spark! The Revolutionary New Science Of Exercise And The Brain.
Blood flow to the brain also increases by at least 20% when we exercise, revving up brain function – and one area particularly stimulated when we move is creative function. “When a group at Stanford University asked students to come up with solutions to their problems in three different situations – sitting, walking or after walking – those who thought while moving came up with the most creative ideas. The reason why is simple: exercise stimulates the part of the brain in which we do most of our creative thinking. You can actually see it light up on a brain scan,” explains Dr Ratey. Which is precisely why you know how to word that tricky email after a quick trot to the coffee shop down the road.
The rhythm of walking (or running) also seems to help us unleash our feelings. In his book The Joy Of Running, psychologist Thaddeus Kostrubala explains it as similar to what happens during meditation where people repeat a phrase or mantra in an attempt to open the mind and stimulate different levels of consciousness. “The same process occurs from the repetitive rhythm of slow, long-distance running,” he writes. Kostrubala’s theory is that repetition exhausts the left cortex of the brain – the logical part which is great for solving, say, maths problems, but when it comes to tackling more emotional dilemmas, it can keep us stuck in patterns of doing the right, the obvious or most sensible thing. “When this part of the brain is tired, the more intuitive, creative part of the brain takes over,” says Kostrubala, and that’s when you’re more likely to release emotions and come up with creative solutions.
It makes sense, then, that a new kind of therapy is emerging that uses running or walking while talking to a trained therapist as a way to help you unburden more effectively or come up with better solutions to issues plaguing you.
“It’s far more effective with some of my patients than speaking in my office,” says walking therapist Jonathan Hoban, who conducts therapy sessions in London’s Hyde Park and on Wimbledon Common. “Clients who tend to be less vocal in face-to-face sessions are up to 70% more communicative during walking therapy sessions – plus they’re more physically expressive, more upbeat and more focused on solutions.”
Running, walking and mulling over your issues is extremely beneficial solo, but where walking or running therapy really comes into its own is that you’re not alone – and this has a rather unique effect. “Exercising with others triggers the release of the hormone oxytocin,” says William Pullen, who also offers running therapy around London. “Oxytocin is the psychotherapist’s best friend – it aids intimacy and sharing and creates a bond with the therapist that helps make it easier to talk.”
The way you move can also give your therapist extra clues as to what you need to work on. Hoban tells us that if a client says an issue isn’t a problem, but their pace increases as they say that, he knows it’s not strictly true and that’s an area he needs to explore further. If someone is getting upset and this is stopping them thinking clearly, slowing the walk can help calm things down. “I also notice changes in the way people run that can tell me a lot about their state of mind,” says Pullen. “If they start to run more on their tiptoes, I can tell they aren’t feeling grounded about a subject; if they set off faster than normal and then run out of steam, that can also reflect how they’re trying to tackle the problem they are discussing.”
This double whammy of biological changes that make you more open – and physical signs that give your therapist a heads up to things you might be hiding – are just two of the reasons why ‘Walk and Talk’ therapists say you could get more from moving sessions than static ones. But the final bonus is that it’s pretty much impossible to run or walk facing each other, so sessions take place side-by-side. “Clients definitely feel less inhibited because they aren’t looking directly at you and as such they can be more willing to share and speak,” explains Hoban. Again, perhaps the reason why you found yourself spilling out your heart and soul on that six-hour trek up Pen y Fan.
Of course, moving therapy isn’t suitable for every problem; if you’re an emotional wreck because your partner has left or you’ve lost a parent and just need to let out your feelings, you might be better doing that in the privacy of a therapist’s office, “but for problems which need you to come up with a clear solution, the way it changes thinking can really help,” says Hoban. “It’s almost as if the action of moving forward helps propel you in the same direction. If people feel trapped in a situation, being constrained by the four walls of an office can reinforce that; by heading outside, you remove that.” Pullen says moving therapy is particularly good for dealing with problems like eating disorders or body image. “People with these problems often become estranged from their bodies and live very much in their minds – moving can help realign the two.”
Of course, not all of us can afford, or want, to unburden ourselves to a professional therapist, so will getting your trainers on with your best friend have the same effect? “Yes, and it’s probably better than trying to solve your problems over a bottle of wine,” says Pullen. “When you drink alcohol you become entrenched in set thought patterns – if you discuss a problem while drinking you’ll often decide to solve it in the same way.”
There are a few rules to follow for a DIY attempt. The most important is that your friend is there just to listen while you come up with your own solutions. “Questions are helpful, opinions are not,” says Pullen. It will also help to head into a park, wood or some fields. When US researchers asked people to walk while reflecting on their problems, those walking in nature had a higher level of self-awareness and less concern about what others felt about their choices – so pick a nice day and head out. Other studies have shown that nature makes us feel more energised, which can enhance your belief that whatever you decide is possible. Don’t go too fast – the harder you work, the greater the chance your thoughts will turn to how your body feels – but do give it time. US studies have found 30-35 minutes of moving is associated with the best boost in mood, while Kostrubala says the best effects on creativity hit around 30-40 minutes. “But don’t think of the sessions as getting fit,” advises Pullen. “They are time to work on your mind, not your body.” So, slip on your trainers or lace up those walking boots. Your brain will thank you.