You might think summer is the best time to enjoy the glory and uplift of nature, but there’s something uniquely magical about winter. The crunch of frosted leaves underfoot, the chill on your cheeks as you venture out wrapped in your cold-weather togs… It’s a special and strangely life-affirming experience to feel the sharp intake of icy air as you breathe in, and whimsically watch it waft out as you exhale.
There’s a sense of calm acceptance in winter: we roll with the weather, prepared for any eventuality… We expect little, but get so much in return. Nature is stark and striking at this time of year and being close to its beauty works wonders for our wellbeing.
One of the best ways to enjoy winter is to immerse yourself in it while walking and enjoy the many benefits that being close to nature brings.
Thankfully, for many of us, walking has become something of a habit over the past 18 months or so. When Boris announced the closure of life as we knew it, we took to the streets where we lived to take advantage of our one hour of allotted daily exercise (usually a walk around the block).
And many of us became hooked. With pluses including weight management, lower stress levels and boosted immunity – regular walkers have, on average, 43 per cent fewer sick days – it’s no surprise we were taken with our newfound accessible and free fitness regime.
However, with life getting back to normal and wintertime upon us, it’s challenging to keep the momentum going. Luckily, we have expert help to keep you motivated and guide you on a journey from evening meander to weekend hike, so you can enjoy all that this beautiful season has to offer – on foot.
Play with pace
If you want to add variety to your walks, a great way to mix things up a bit, and prepare your mind and body for more challenging walks and routes, is to add fartlek training to your routine. It’s a Swedish term meaning ‘speed play’ and is a form of interval training that can drastically improve speed and stamina.
Try 10 minutes of normal walking and three minutes of power walking to begin with and build up from there. ‘You can time your fast and slow intervals based on how you feel, and experiment with changes of pace,’ says James Davis of fitness retreat 38 Degrees North. ‘Fartlek training is perfect for beginners because you can tailor speeds to suit your level and it helps take some of the stress out of workouts, as you learn not to obsess about distance and mileage and focus on building stamina.
‘The bursts of speed help get the blood pumping, which improves blood flow to your whole body, including your brain. And it gives you a boost of feelgood endorphins.’
Spark your interest
If there’s one thing we all did during lockdown, it was walk the same routes over and over again. ‘In order to keep up the momentum and increase your fitness in the process so you can tackle weekend adventures, try mixing up your midweek routes to keep you inspired,’ says James.
‘For example, walk your most common route in reverse or add a lap of the park to your shortest route – take the kids and find some icy puddles to stamp on and crack! Variety is the spice of life, so mixing things up is one of the best ways to retain interest and enthusiasm.’
Take it seriously
Many people don’t see walking as ‘proper’ exercise, but it definitely is and taking it seriously and preparing appropriately will make it a whole lot more enjoyable, starting with some stretching.
‘Walking can put a big strain on your glutes and lower back and this can be particularly telling if you have a weak core,’ says Claire Davis of fitness retreat 38 Degrees North. ‘Working on your core and maintaining good posture, as well as stretching before and after each session, is key to keeping your body happy and healthy on your walks.’
If you go into the woods…
One way to pimp up your walks is to incorporate a wooded area. ‘Forest bathing is huge in Japan and it is as simple as it sounds – it’s when people spend time walking among trees,’ says James. If you don’t have a woodland path nearby then it really is worth a short drive or bus journey to your nearest one.
Studies have found that just 15 minutes immersed beneath the leafy canopies is enough to lower cortisol levels (the stress hormone), blood pressure and heart rate. A further study has found that people who spend more time in nature have a happier and more positive outlook on life, and are even kinder and more creative – all the more reason to swap the streets and housing estates for forests and fields.
Dress the part
It’s prudent to do more than dig out your old trainers to give your adventures the best chance of becoming a habit. ‘You don’t need to spend a fortune, but investing in some decent kit – most notably walking boots and a rain jacket – is vital for making your walk an enjoyable experience that you think positively about and want to repeat,’ says Claire.
Do you want to make memories you’ll remember forever? Walking could be the key. A study conducted by researchers at the University of California found that those who walk regularly have better memory function than those who are more sedentary.
Go old school
‘Another great way to up your walking game is to take yourself off the beaten track with a spot of map reading,’ says Claire. ‘Ditch the apps and fancy gadgets, dust off the old paper map and plan a weekend adventure away from the streets where you live. When you set out on your hike, see if you can manage without using your phone to give your mind a digital detox. The act of map reading will sharpen your brain as you challenge it with new skills,’ she says. ‘We’ve become reliant on technology for so many aspects of our lives, it’s important to master new or forgotten skills from time to time as a workout for your brain. And getting away from urban areas and out among the energising winter vista can be a real mood booster.’
Join the gang
‘One of the best ways to turn your lockdown meanders around the village into something more adventurous is to join a walking group,’ says James. ‘There are thousands of groups across the country, catering for all fitness levels. Not only is it sociable and fun to walk with others, it also means you are more accountable and less likely to skip a session,’ he says.
‘Walking with a group gives an added layer of safety, which many women find reassuring, and takes the burden of route planning off your shoulders, which can be rather appealing if you’re short on time. What’s more, walking – and, perhaps even more importantly, talking – with others can have great benefits for your mental health and happiness levels.’
Photography: Getty Images
Words: Larissa Chapman