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What I've learnt about walking in nature

Women have been walking in the wilds for hundreds of years. Here, a few lessons on walking that they can teach us.

Five years ago I began researching the forgotten histories of women who walked for reasonable distances in green spaces. Frankly, I was tired of reading about men hiking over mountains or across deserts – wind in their carefree hair, not a thought in their unencumbered heads. Didn’t women walk in nature, I asked myself? Cheryl Strayed’s Wild seemed to be the first account of a woman setting off on a hiking adventure.

Not so. Five years later and I am infinitely wiser: women have always walked. Despite the complexities of being female – the threat of male violence, the lack of training in navigation, the additional challenges of menstruation, menopause and long skirts – women have been walking in the wilds for hundreds of years. And not merely to carry water or firewood. Like men, a few brave women have reaped the multiple benefits of between earth and sky – for pleasure.

Emboldened, I selected six women for my book – Georgia O’Keeffe, Frieda Lawrence, Simone de Beauvoir, Daphne du Maurier/Clara Vyvyan, Gwen John and Nan Shepherd – and walked in their little-known footsteps. It was the greatest epiphany of my life. I returned home utterly rejuvenated and with a few little lessons on how, when and where to walk, which I’m delighted to share with Noon readers.

Incidentally, most walks are improved when done somewhere wild or green. High levels of urban air pollution have, sadly, taken away many of the joys of city strolling. Find a park, cemetery or quiet leafy streets if you can’t get into the countryside.

1. Walk at night

Almost every woman I researched for my book (Windswept: Walking in the Footsteps of Remarkable Women) walked at night, relishing the darkness, silence, starlight and moonbeams. So swap after-supper Netflix for an evening stroll with friends or partner. Why? Because we’ll sleep better (darkness triggers the body’s production of sleep-inducing melatonin) and research suggests that walking accelerates the passage of food through our intestines, easing digestion. Walking after a meal also lowers blood sugar spikes. Instead of lingering in our blood (where it can lead to heart disease, strokes, kidney disease and other health problems), excess glucose is taken up by our muscles. Besides, night walks have a magic no other amble offers.

2. Walk with the wind

Georgia O’Keeffe’s favourite walks were those taken in a stiff wind. “I like the wind—it seems more like me than anything else—I like the way it blows everything,” she wrote in 1917. Van Gogh agreed, attributing his creativity to the Mistral. Science supports both painters: wind blows away mosquitoes and pollution creating cleaner, fresher air, but it also – according to the scientist, Lyall Watson – speeds up metabolism and widens the blood vessels and muscles of the heart. To boot, wind creates a natural form of resistance – walk into the wind and our muscles automatically engage, making a windy walk a full workout.

3. Walk long

The women in my book walked for considerably longer than the Government’s recommended 30 minutes a day. No wonder several of them lived so long: Clara Vyvyan to 90, O’Keeffe to 98, Nan Shepherd to 88. In the most recent newsletter from the US Fight Aging organisation, optimal health was deemed to come from moving for 1.5 – 2.5 hours a day. Forget the paltry 30 minutes in a gym. Take a train or bus to your nearest trail – and stride out over plains or hills, through valleys or beside a river, canal or the sea. Alternatively walk your commute, office meetings, book club suppers, or supermarket shops (take a backpack), avoiding busy roads and stationery traffic. Incidentally, one of the world’s longest-living women, Mary Sarti (107) attributes her good health to a daily one-hour walk (and a glass of red wine).

4. Walk in woodland

After escaping an abusive marriage, Emma Gatewood walked the 2000-mile forested Appalachian Trail – first at the age of 67, and then hiking a final section aged 75. She wasn’t privy to the latest science: that being amid trees makes us stronger and healthier. Trees produce phytoncides – chemicals that have extraordinary effects, only now being understood. According to Dr Qing Li being in the presence of phytoncides improves our immunity. Indeed, phytoncides are so powerful that early experiments suggest those from pine trees can kill breast cancer tumours (in petri dishes).

5. Follow water

Many of the women I researched chose to walk alone: no mobile phone, no GPS, no mountain rescue service. Sensibly, they often chose to follow a river, canal or coast line, which meant easier navigating and no need to grapple with map-reading. Walking beside a river is one my favourite ways to walk and not just because I can avoid map-reading! New studies show that being with water (blue space) quells feelings of anxiety and depression more than any other landscape. Scientists speculate that the presence of water – indicating that food and drink is nearby – is innately calming. The abundance of reflected light might help too. Light makes the brain produce feel-good serotonin – and the brighter the light, the more serotonin our brains produce.

6. Walk in sunlight

It may seem obvious to choose a sunny day for a long walk. But there’s more to being in sunlight than feel-good serotonin and bone-building Vitamin D. Recently neuroscientists discovered that when light hits the cells at the backs of our eyes, it triggers the production of an appetite-curbing hormone called melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH). When we get sufficient MSH we don’t eat as much, which is why we typically eat less in summer. To get plenty of MSH-enhancing light on our eyes, we need to walk without sunglasses – if only for a bit.

7. Walk in the moment

Scottish walker and writer, Nan Shepherd, taught me how to walk fully immersed in nature. From using your eyes to sweep long stretches of water, to viewing the landscape upside-down, to walking barefoot and napping in the open air, Shepherd covers it all in her account of Scottish hill-walking, The Living Mountain. The Cornish writer Clara Vyvyan had her own techniques too – one of which was to pause frequently in order to absorb the spirit of a place or landscape.  Stop, close your eyes, listen, smell, feel the rain on your skin and the wind in your hair – let your body soak it up.  Not only mesmerising but deeply calming…

8. Use the landscape to improve your peripheral vision

As we grow older, our peripheral vision declines, making us more likely to trip, fall or get hit by a car. Peripheral vision enables us to sense and swerve away from other pedestrians, cars, pot holes and snakes. More importantly our peripheral vision helps us maintain our balance. Our screen-based lives discourage peripheral vision at the expense of close focal vision. Luckily a 2019 report found that walking improves our peripheral vision. Put away your phone and pay attention to the things going on just out of range – be it birds, lambs or other walkers.

9. Take a wild dip

Pack a micro towel and swimmers, and take a coastal walk. It’s just possible that a cold dip could stave off dementia, not to mention reducing depression, anxiety and mood swings. When Dr Mark Harper studied 61 cold-water swimmers, he found significantly improved mood. He believes that cold water swimming reduces inflammation – linked to both depression and dementia. Nan Shepherd, Frieda Lawrence and Georgia O’Keeffe frequently swam wild, with O’Keeffe claiming to have bathed in every stream in New Mexico.

10. Go wild, go solo

The walker and climber, Dorothy Pilley, believed her “solitary wanderings with map and compass across the hills” gave her an enduring confidence, empowering her as nothing else had. Beauvoir – who spent hours studying maps and plotting trails – believed that liberation began with the capacity to plan a route entirely on one’s own. For any woman on the verge of mid-life there is nothing more liberating than knowing you can survive by yourself. Pack a rucksack, plot a wild route and head off. You’ll return stronger in every way. Start with a well-marked, uncomplicated route – like a section of the South Downs Way or one of the new pilgrim routes organised by the British Pilgrimage Trust.

Annabel Abbs

Windswept: Walking in the Footsteps of Remarkable Women is published by Two Roads on June 10 2021.


Twitter: @annabelabbs | Instagram: @annabelabbs

Twitter: @age_wellproject | Instagram: @agewellproject

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