"In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks." ~ John Muir
For those of us in the northern hemisphere, autumn is finally here—that time of year when we feel a natural longing to get outside, enjoy the cooler weather and witness nature’s colorful displays. And as if on cue, new research has just revealed that stepping out into nature and participating in group walks can help ease stress and greatly enhance mental health.
The study, published in a special issue of Ecopsychology, found that people who engage in group nature walks have decreased levels of depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental health and well-being.
Researchers evaluated 1,991 individuals who were participants of the Walking for Health program in England, which organizes over 3,000 free group walks each week. More than 70,000 walkers participate in this program each year.
“Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression,” says senior author Sara Warber, M.D., associate professor of family medicine at the U-M Medical School.
Walking is an inexpensive, low-risk and easy form of exercise, she adds, and when combined with nature and group settings, it can be a powerful, under-utilized stress buster.
"Given the increase in mental ill health and physical inactivity in the developed world, we are constantly exploring new, accessible ways to help people improve their long term quality of life and well-being," says Warber.
Group nature walking was found to be especially helpful for those who had recently experienced a stressful life event such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, divorce or unemployment; these individuals saw the greatest elevation in mood.
So lace up your shoes, grab a few friends (or join an outdoor walking group) and enjoy a “walk and talk” in the beauty of autumn. There’s something inherently healing about stepping into nature and enjoying the sights, smells and sounds with like-minded people. Think of it as an inexpensive, holistic prescription with no negative side effects.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan, with partners from De Montfort University, James Hutton Institute, and Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom.