Words: Katherine Watt
While it might be tempting to jump straight back into an intensive exercise plan – especially now the government is emphasising the importance of getting active – it’s important to ease into it at a level that suits you. So, if a stuffy, clinically sanitised gym isn’t quite doing it for you now, look to nature instead. Think gentle jogs alongside the meditative flow of a river or long swims in fresh, wild waters. “Exercise can have a tendency to make you feel frantic and intense, wandering in different directions with your mind and body,” says wellbeing expert Kim Coley (@kimcoley1). “The key is to tune inward for your deeper needs first. Let the movement lead and the mind be curious, rather than allowing your brain to force the body to follow.”
Let’s go outside
“Woodlands, parks, rivers and even back gardens offer a broader spectrum of stimulation than a controlled gym environment,” says Dr Ian Tennant, author of Restoring Balance – How to Return to a Natural State of Easy Health. “Extremes in temperature, sunlight, wind and variable terrain stress you in a positive way, called ‘hormesis’, which improves wellbeing.”
In fact, a study conducted by University of California, Berkeley found that simply spending time outdoors can significantly increase feelings of awe – a boost we could all benefit from after a period of such intense introspection. What’s more, now is exactly the right time of the year to be immersed in the land, sea and sky, because you’ll be needing those vitamin D reserves for winter. Absorbed directly from the sun, vitamin D works with calcium to keep your bones strong and is vital for producing the happy hormone serotonin, which wards off symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) when the darker months arrive.
Sync into your stroll
According to a study in the journal Frontiers, just 20 minutes of gentle walking is enough to reduce cortisol and calm your adrenal glands, which, in turn, reduces stress and fatigue. And, if you’ve just started commuting again, now is the perfect opportunity to get those extra steps in: research conducted by University of Leeds shows walking to work can reduce cardiovascular problems by 36 percent.
Got a good rhythm going? Even better: New Mexico Highlands University has found that walking with sustained rhythmic motion for 30 minutes or more boosts blood supply to your brain, and is especially pronounced if you walk riverside. Just be sure to keep your breathing steady and try to incorporate the ‘five senses’ meditation technique, as advised by the National Institute of Care and Excellence (NICE). Examples of a successful ‘five senses’ walk include admiring the intricacies of a flower you spot en route, tuning into a surrounding birdsong, or taking the time to really notice the woodland scent that succeeds rainfall.
Once it becomes natural to connect your mind and body as you walk, start mixing up the pace. Power walk for two minutes, swinging your arms as you go to raise your heart rate and activate larger muscles, such as your glutes and hamstrings. Then, slow it right down for two minutes, drawing in through your navel, lifting your spine and pulling your shoulders back and down. This helps connect those larger muscle groups with smaller, intricate muscles and fibres. Take it fast again for two – swinging and striding like no one’s watching – then back down to slow, repeating until you feel invigorated but not exhausted. Take it fast again for two – swinging and striding like no-one’s watching – then back down to slow, repeating until you feel invigorated but not exhausted. Using sticks, or poles (such as the AntiShock Ll Lightweight Walking Pole £7.45, regatta.com), are a good addition to this kind of movement, as they help you connect and stabilise through your core muscles. Just 15 minutes of walking can help dispel food, cigarette or even alcohol cravings according to the University of Essex.
Take the plunge
When water particles crash with oxygen atoms they gain an extra electron to make ‘negative ions’, which refresh your mind thanks to increased oxygen flow – making coastlines, lakes and rivers excellent workout buddies.
“Exercising by water has a magical way of connecting your energy with the earth,” says outdoor therapist Eve Menezes Cunningham (selfcarecoaching.net). “If you’re walking or jogging by water, simply pause to notice how your body wants to move.” Practising some light skipping, yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi or Pilates by this powerful element will leave you feeling energised, but why not take it a step further with wild swimming? Immersing yourself in natural, cold water gives you an instant hit of feel-good neurotransmitters adrenaline and dopamine. The positive shock also strengthens your cardiovascular system, which, coupled with the good bacteria you’ll absorb, enhances your immune system too. Shivering itself – in or out of water – burns 100 calories in 15 minutes due to the secretion of irisin, a hormone that creates heat from fat cells. Resist the urge to get the initial plunge ‘over and done with’ though – you don’t want to overload your senses so much that you get straight back out again! “I used to charge into the sea – but I learned to take it slower,” says Eve. “I paddle year-round and use it as a chance to meditate, asking for guidance in my life. “Work with your breath or talk soothingly to yourself to acclimatise.”
Before your first wild swim, splash the water onto your inner wrists to adjust to the temperature. “I wade in until I’m waist-height, then launch into a front crawl to warm up,” says Eve. Even a slower-paced breast stroke in fresh water can burn more than 400 calories in 30 minutes, because your body works twice as hard in the cold. Get some extra toning exercises in by adding strengthening moves too – rocks make perfect makeshift weights for biceps curls.