Walk your way to wellness

Health and wellness coach Alex Pedley explains how just 10 minutes of walking a day can improve your mental wellbeing

This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in the Evening Standard 

We now have the capacity to track our every footstep via our smartphones and watches. You would assume that this information would make us more active, but the opposite is true. Instead, it simply highlights the fact that we are not moving enough.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) between 60% and 85% of the population worldwide does not engage in enough physical activity. This is now the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality.

It is no surprise that staying active is fundamental to our physical wellbeing, but the benefits are just as vast for our mental wellbeing. Studies show that walking can help with our mental health – reducing anxiety, depression and negative mood; it can also boost self-esteem and reduce symptoms of social withdrawal.

One particular study, in Scotland, of 3371 unique participants who completed a total of 285,380 scans to see what the affect of physical activity had on their mental wellbeing, showed a substantial difference in mental wellbeing between the least and most active individuals.

The power of walking cannot be underestimated – it is an underutilised weapon in the fight against the abundant stressors of modern life. Yet, if you go out in the city of London during a normal workday, you will see professionals walking while checking their ‘phones. The time spent strolling between meetings and other appointments was once a period of relaxation but is often now spent fully submerged in replying to messages; instead of switching off we stay very much switched on.

I often have conversations with busy people who tell me that, even when they have moments of downtime, they still struggle to relax. They are so used to ‘doing’ that, when they have the opportunity to do nothing, they are unable to take advantage of it – they have become habitually busy.

This is not helped by the fact that we now fill a large amount of time by using technology. A study by Voucher Cloud suggests that the average office worker spends nearly three hours a day messaging or on the internet.

How do you break the habit and move from being switched on to switched off?

It begins by structuring short breaks into your diary to enjoy some mental downtime. This is where ‘10 Minutes Matter’ comes in.

At the start of the week schedule 10 minutes each day into your diary to leave the office and go for a walk – just 10 minutes, no more to begin with. This is an addition to any exercise you may already do or your lunch break if you take one.

For these 10 minutes, leave your ‘phone and any other technology somewhere safe. If you are at work let a member of your team know that you will not be contactable for this short period. Leaving your ‘phone in the office may feel uncomfortable at the beginning, but creating a new habit takes time and you will get used to this process soon enough.

You can do this on your own or with a friend or work colleague; the only proviso is that you do not talk about work or any other problems – this is a time to laugh, smile and switch off from the demands of your day.

If you are worried about these breaks affecting your productivity, then have no fear. A study by Gaugiem, which tracked the habits of its most productive employees, found that a work-to-rest ratio of 52 minutes’ work, followed by 17 minutes’ rest, was ideal to improve focus and productivity. The employees who took regular breaks during the day to go for a walk, chat to work colleagues or generally just take a break from their current task were more focused and productive when they continued.

The key was that the most productive employees focused solely on the task at hand, ignoring any distractions, including checking emails and smartphones. They used intense ‘sprint periods’ of work to increase the output they were producing. This was followed by a period of complete rest, again avoiding emails or smartphones. This method of working negates cognitive boredom, often brought on by repeating the same task for long periods, and allows your brain to naturally ebb and flow.

If this wasn’t enough to ‘twist your arm’ to schedule time to walk, a study at Stanford University of around 175 people looked at how walking, compared to being seated, affected creativity. They found that walking produced 100% more creative answers.

Looking after our mental and physical wellbeing is more than just working out and eating well. We need to integrate regular practices into our day where we can reset and recharge.

Taking short walks is our secret weapon, keeping us physically active and mentally sharp.

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