Just because many of us have been walking for most of our lives doesn’t mean we’re doing it in the best way. So what is the healthiest way to walk? I spoke to Annabel Streets, author of 52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time.

There are many areas of health – mental health, emotional health, gut health, etc. Can walking really help them all?
I think so! The air you want to walk in should be full of negative ions, which happens where water is crashing. Waterfalls are brilliant. One study compared different groups of care workers. One group walked near waterfalls, one stayed inside, and another walked in the mountains. The waterfall group had far less psychological distress, improved lung capacity and much higher levels of an antibody called secretory immunoglobulin, which is found in the mucosal lining of our mouth and nose, and in our gut.

Alas, there are no waterfalls where I live in London.
Head to a park and find a water fountain. It’s the best we’ve got.

What’s the best time to walk?
That depends. If you’re a poor sleeper, you need to walk for at least 10 minutes within an hour of waking. It’s no good being by a window – you need maximum light in the back of your eyes telling your body to sleep again in 15 hours. A walk in the late afternoon also gives your body a reminder, ideally in a forest. One of the studies I looked at found that for people who walked in a pine forest, the effect was similar to taking a sleeping pill. If you’re walking for mood, the science says get out early too.

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But I hate mornings!
Night walks can be good. Especially if there’s a full moon. The average person sleeps 20 minutes less on a full moon. Our ancestors would have used the moonlight as an extended day – we’re designed to be out in it.

I’m guessing my usual walk through congested streets is not the healthiest.
Afraid not.

I do see some good buildings though.
If you’re doing that, I always tell people to look out for fractals.

Fractals?
A fractal is a repeating pattern, often found in nature and absolutely everywhere in architecture. When we look at a fractal, we instinctively relax – our brain produces feelgood alpha waves.

That sounds like an improvement on just reading emails.
I’d urge you not to do that – you could get hit by a car! And you can’t hear the birdsong. A study found that people who lived in cities had their mood lifted by birdsong. Also, what happens to your body when you look out at the horizon? Your stress level drops, the cortisol falls. It’s why we love views.

You talking about birdsong gave me a flashback. The nightclubs would kick out at 4am, but it would be a little while until the first tube, so my friends and I would walk in the direction of home until we could get on a train. It was an almost religious experience. The city’s empty and the sun’s coming up, you can hear the birds, see the buildings, feel their history …
Wow, that sounds like a good reason to go clubbing. “I’ve gone clubbing, but only for the walk home.”

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