By Sandy Wright
Just because the trees are bare and there’s a chill in the air doesn’t mean you have to forgo your daily walks outside for the dreaded treadmill.
Outdoor walking provides three major levels of benefit. The physical benefit of any exercise is obvious. But walking helps you think better. Just 90 days of moderate walking boosts blood flow to the brain by 15%. You get fresh air (or as close as we come to that on earth these days), which helps increase your energy level.
Like bears, people tend to hibernate during the winter and, as a result, get too little sunlight, explains Lynn Millar, PhD, a physical therapist and professor at Andrews University in Barrien Springs, Mich. That's too bad for bones. Sun exposure triggers vitamin D production in the skin, and bones need the “sunshine vitamin” to make the body absorb bone-strengthening calcium properly. Not getting outside during winter months slows down production and decreases the body’s store of vitamin D.
“Vitamin D is important for keeping bones strong; it’s particularly important for people with arthritis who take corticosteroids because they have an increased risk of brittle bones,” says Millar. Going for a winter walk and getting 15 minutes of sun on your face and hands two to three times per week should suffice for getting enough sun for vitamin D production.
Besides aiding in strong bones and a healthy immune system, this vitamin has been shown to help prevent dementia.
We are designed to live and work outdoors, hiking through forests and over hills. Our entire system responds to outdoor exercise. Sunlight is helpful psychologically also, to help avoid conditions such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, which causes low energy levels and depression during the short daylight hours of higher-latitude winters. Wide open spaces, particularly if combined with large bodies of water, have a transformative effect on the brain. They relax the mind and facilitative meditation by clearing blocked emotions and energy. To get the most benefit, try looking ahead in the distance, or at objects above the horizontal plane. It will help clear your thought patterns.
There is some evidence that suggests we can derive more health benefit by walking barefoot. It’s called grounding, and some swear by the anti-inflammation benefits of putting their bare soles to the earth.
We tend to think of the earth as electrically neutral because of its ability to absorb and neutralize vast amounts of electrical current, but in reality, due to grounding lightning strikes it is in fact negatively charged. That’s a whole lot of free electrons available to absorb, if our bare feet make contact. By grounding you can plug into the earth’s energy field, and neutralize the huge amounts of free radicals we are saturated with from residual ambient radio, microwave and infrared pollution. If you have trouble sleeping and feel your circadian rhythm is disrupted, try taking a walk barefoot on your lawn!
Another benefit to kicking off your shoes is to allow your limbs to return to their natural gait. In shoes, your foot lands heel-first, with maximum skeletal shock, rather than toe-first, which minimizes the impact. The foot is connected to every part of our energy system, and allowing the foot’s natural movement and massaging motion will help keep you supple.
The third benefit to walking in nature is a more spiritual one. We are reminded that the earth is not just some random boat we happen to be aboard. It is our home, just like the body we inhabit. Although it might appear that we exist as isolated individuals, separate from one another, living in our own universes, in reality we share the same universe, the same earth, the same breath. That earth was here before us and will endure after our physical death. The idea is powerful and humbling, and helps put day-to-day life into perspective.
So walk barefoot before it gets too cold. Grab a pitchfork and tuck in your garden with a blanket of mulch or straw. Bundle up and walk in the woods or down your favorite trail. Give thanks for the turning wheel of the year and the beauty of Nature in all of her coats.