Walking for Mental Vitality:
Some Psychological Benefits of Walking in Natural Settings
Raymond De Young
University of Michigan
Raymond De Young
School of Natural Resources and Environment
University of Michigan, 440 Church Street
Ann Arbor, MI, USA 48109-1041
The benefits to society from walking are many (e.g., economic, social, environmental)
and a variety of personal motives support walking including utilitarian travel, increased
physical health, and the intrinsic benefits of recreation and social interaction. There is
now emerging a new reason for walking which both benefits society and is motivating to
the individual. It focuses on mental (attentional) restoration. Attention Restoration Theory
can be used to explain the psychological mechanism by which walking improves our
mental effectiveness, as well as to suggest where and how to best gain this outcome.
Effective functioning requires a mental state called vitality. Even in the best of
circumstances maintaining this state is difficult. To make matters worse, modern culture
all but conspires to wear mental effectiveness down. Mental vitality is understood to be
the capacity to direct attention. Functioning effectively despite the distractions of our
vibrant world is fatiguing of this capacity. Restoring this attentional capacity, being a
precondition to thinking and self-regulation, thus becomes essential for maintaining
social civility and individual wellness.
Contained here are numerous researchable issues but all focus on a central question,
namely, what are the conditions under which walking revitalizes the mind. This paper
begins the process of identifying these conditions by discussing several themes. The first
is where to walk. In principle there are many types of restorative settings. However,
research highlights the restorative role of natural environments. A second theme is when
to walk. Given that we are poor judges of our own mental vitality, restoration requires a
planned and regular walking routine. A third theme is how to walk. The benefit of solitary
over social walking becomes clearer once it is understood that there are different kinds
of fascination and different sorts of distractions, each with different effects on the
restorative process. Another concern is what to do while walking. The growing
popularity of walking meditation raises the question of where and how to direct the mind
while walking. Understanding how mental vitality fatigues, and is restored, helps explain
why gently engaging the mind with a focus either inward on the body or outward on the
environment, will aid restoration. A related and final theme concerns seasonal effects.
Some people do find winter walks restorative. However, finding signs of nature in the
dead of winter is clearly difficult and requires learning how to engage the mind. It seems
important to playfully explore the many hidden forms of winter nature, particularly if we
accept that year-round mental effectiveness matters.
It is indeed fortunate that attentional restoration requires nothing more than walking,
particularly mindful walking in natural settings. There seems to be no special advantage
to time spent in spectacular environments as nearby nature is sufficient. And thus, this
paper’s major prescription for enhancing mental vitality is simply to walk – to walk
outside, to walk regularly and to walk surrounded by and mindful of everyday nature.
Walking for Mental Vitality:
Some Psychological Benefits of Walking in Natural Settings
Raymond De Young
University of Michigan
Once walking was a requirement of daily life. Then, over a period of centuries, we
engineered physical activity out of our lives as we created our modern existence. Public
health experts now acknowledge the toll that modern life takes on human well-being.
Recent data on obesity are indicative, with it having become the second leading cause
of death in the United States (Mokdad, Marks, Stroup, & Gerberding, 2004).
Numerous studies document the positive effect of regular exercise on both physical
health and emotional well-being (Boutcher, 2000; Fox, 1999; Seymour, 2003;
Warburton, Nicol, & Bredin, 2006; Weuve et al., 2004). Research from a range of
countries (e.g., Australia, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom) has
also demonstrated the positive effect of nature, in its various forms, on both physical and
psychological well-being (de Vries et al., 2003; Kaplan, 1995; O’Brien, 2006). Benefits
emerge not only from being physically active in nature (e.g. walking, cycling, gardening),
but also from intentionally viewing nature (Kaplan, 2001), and even from being
unintentionally exposed to nature, as when we walk to school (Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan,
2001). What is most hopeful is that the positive effect of nature does not require postcard
perfect vistas. Time spent in unspectacular, everyday natural settings can have positive
Based on this “nature as medicine” concept, a number of exciting efforts are emerging.
Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, has helped groups in the United
States to rethink the role of nature in urban and suburban design and living. In Europe,
initiatives are promoting both green exercise (Pretty, Peacock, Sellens, & Griffin, 2005)
and a form of systematic healthcare called green care (Pretty, 2006).
Walking is a core part of sustainable living on a finite planet. The benefits to society from
walking are well known and many (e.g., economic, social, environmental) and a variety
of personal motives support walking including utilitarian travel, self-improvement (e.g.,
physical health, emotional well-being), and the intrinsic benefits of exploration,
recreation, and social interaction. However, there is now emerging a new reason for
walking which both benefits society and is motivating to the individual. It focuses on the
mental (attentional) revitalization that can occur from regular walks, particularly those in
Recent theoretical and empirical work has identified the capacity to direct our attention
as one of the essential mechanisms underlying our ability to function sustainably in the
modern world. By understanding the attention mechanism we can begin to understand
why walks have a positive effect on our everyday functioning. In doing so we can begin
to identify where, when, and how to walk.
MAINTAINING EFFECTIVE FUNCTIONING
Effective day-to-day functioning requires a state called mental vitality. Mental vitality is
effortful and difficult to manage; it cannot be scheduled nor forced. Even in the best of
circumstances maintaining this state is difficult. To make matters worse, our modern
lifestyle all but conspires to wear mental vitality down. Attention Restoration Theory
explains the cognitive mechanism underlying mental vitality (Kaplan, 1995) and helps to
explain the psychological benefits of walking in natural settings.
The psychological term used to describe mental effort is directed attention. The current
understanding of how attention functions builds on William James' century old distinction
between directed attention and another form of attention called fascination (James,
Fascination is involuntary attention; it requires virtually no effort and is not under
volitional control. It is experienced when, out of innate interest or curiosity, certain
objects (e.g., trees, animals, water) or processes (e.g., exploration, mysteries, puzzles)
effortlessly engage our mind. James' list of innately fascinating stimuli is revealing,
"Strange things, moving things, wild animals, bright things, pretty things, blows, blood,
etc. etc. etc." (1892/1985). The potential significance of such objects and events argues
for why this form of attention does not fatigue; it is adaptive that such things continue to
rivet our attention even when encountered repeatedly in quick succession.
The capacity to direct attention, in contrast, requires effort. This directed mental effort is
essential for dealing with everyday tasks lacking innate fascination. In order to
contemplate important yet uninspiring objects and processes we must inhibit competing,
and perhaps more fascinating, thoughts and stimuli. Such inhibition allows us to carry
out an important plan despite the presence of diversions, listen closely while beset by
noise, and feel compassion for others despite unmet personal need. A key to
understanding the role inhibition plays in contemplation is to realize that we apparently
cannot amplify weak activity in the brain. We can only inhibit competing activity, potential
distractions, from taking over. As James explained it, "voluntary [directed] attention is a
way to favor weak current activity over a fringe, and potentially threatening activity"
Mental vitality can be partly understood as our having the capacity to direct attention.
Functioning effectively despite the distractions and challenges of a vibrant world is
fatiguing of this capacity. Restoring this capacity, being a precondition to thought and
self-regulation, thus becomes essential for continued high levels of individual
Important role played by directed attention
Directed attention allows for the enormous flexibility of human cognition and behavior. If
we were unable to inhibit any stimuli, essentially forced to attend to every next thing that
the environment presents, then recollection, contemplation, even behavioral continuity
becomes difficult. This capacity to inhibit the effect of competing stimuli allows mundane,
non-fascinating events and objects to become, if only for a short time, the focus of
thought. Thus we are able to acquire a broader variety of knowledge and build a larger
repertoire of responses than is possible through the use of fascination alone.
The inhibition offered by direct attention is a fundamental mechanism allowing for a wide
range of human behaviors including everyday competence and civility. In short,
sustained effectiveness may depend on directed attention being readily available.
While involuntary fascination has its origin in the adaptive response to environmental
challenge there is a nasty aspect to this form of attention. Fascinating objects and
processes can act as impossible-to-ignore distractions if they are present while we have
something important in mind which doesn't itself captivate us. Such fascinating
distractions can be internal or external. Clearly e.e. cummings understood the power of
external fascination to distract when he explained "it is with roses and locomotives, not
to mention acrobats, Spring, electricity, Coney Island, the 4th of July, the eyes of mice
and Niagara Falls, that my 'poems' are competing" (1926: Forward). For modern
professionals the competition is much closer to home and sometimes internal. Many
readers have jobs that abound with new ideas, fascinating gadgets, enjoyable projects
and people, and, of course, the internet.
Furthermore, this attentional competition need not be benign; our ability to be fascinated
can be used against us. In the wrong hands our tendency to be involuntarily fascinated
can be abused as a tool used to distract us from our own intentions (Mander, 1978;
Postman, 1985). Such effects help to explain the powerful lure of advertising (Midgley,
1978) and the inability for some of us to say no to a new version of software, breaking
news reports, or an intriguing opportunity despite the fact that each may be peripheral to
our agenda and contrary to our desire to remain on task and at peak performance.
Another nasty aspect of fascination comes from its resistance to our efforts to stop its
effect. Involuntary fascination cannot easily be suspended by using directed attention.
But this doesn't stop us from quixotically trying to suspend its effect nor from incurring
the mental fatigue that comes from such futile effort.
Compounding the problem of irresistible distractions is the fact that the capacity to
voluntarily direct our attention is finite. Thus this resource, so vital to effectiveness by
virtue of its allowing for mental focus and contemplation in a noisy and distracting world, is
not always available. All distractions, benign or otherwise, and almost all directed mental
effort can generate a mental cost, even when such effort is in service to meaningful
personal goals. When under continual demand our capacity to control the inhibitory
process tires resulting in a condition called directed attention fatigue (DAF). This “tired in
the head” (Akerstedt, et al., 2004) condition reduces our mental effectiveness.
The experience of DAF is familiar to those who persevere on tasks central to their work,
particularly challenging tasks. These tasks can be thoroughly enjoyable and highly
meaningful. In fact, the more we derive personal meaning from an activity the more likely
it is that we will stay with that task for extended periods of time.
Causes and effects of mental fatigue
Particularly noticeable at the end of a long project or task, a number of symptoms are
commonly attributed to this mental fog: irritability and impulsivity that results in
regrettable utterances, impatience that has us quickly jumping to ill-formed conclusions,
and distractibility that results in tasks being left unknowingly uncompleted. While the
experience of directed attention fatigue is familiar, it is useful to differentiate its causes
from the resulting effects. The causes are as varied as the many activities needed to live
a productive and civil existence (Table 1).
The resulting symptoms of directed attention fatigue are just as varied as the causes and
include many effects that are counterproductive to thought. They can be summarized as
a greatly reduced ability to reflect, plan and reason and they have in common the
inability to self-regulate thought or action (Table 2).
Table 1 Some causes of directed attention fatigue
Focusing too long on one topic
Working on a task having enough fascination to be
engaging but that still requires use of directed attention
Quixotically fighting beautiful and fascinating distractions
Fighting internal noise and confusion
Fighting external noise and confusion
Running ahead in thought
Managing a plan or monitoring a situation
Tracking multiple ideas, feelings, or actions
Deceiving others or trying to detect deception
Working long hours and getting too little sleep
Needing to deal with ambiguity or prolonged uncertainty
(e.g., awaiting a decision, dealing with extended illness)
Listening in the
presence of noise
Table 2 Some effects of directed attention fatigue
Losing the big picture
Jumping to hasty conclusions
Hopelessness and helplessness
Unable to know when to stop
Difficulty deciding, planning, or following a plan
Being stuck on one solution
Difficulty starting new tasks
Less flexible and open-minded
Failure to anticipate
Saying things you wish you hadn't
Disinclined to help others in need
Greater impatience and impulsivity
Adopting risky behavior
Lower capacity to transcend the environment
Feeling irritable or uncomfortable
Failure of focus
Failure of civility
Mental fatigue is the normal outcome of the pursuit of meaningful goals despite the world
around us being neutral or hostile to our efforts. At the end of the task, the day, the week
or the month, fatigue is inevitable. With a diminished capacity to inhibit, the ability to be
thoughtful suffers. But once this diminished capacity is understood to be a normal,
recurrent event we can take steps to restore our fatigued directed attention.
For the less severe forms of mental fatigue, restoration is but a short step away. In order
to restore directed attention resources it is necessary to seek out settings and situations
that require little of this finite resource. Although recovery from directed attention fatigue
is sometimes available from a good night's sleep often even sleep is insufficient.
Fortunately recovery can also be achieved by pursuing activities that rely heavily on
involuntary fascination. As fascination is engaged, the need for directed attention is
reduced thereby allowing it to recover. Thus one feature of restorative environments is
their ability to elicit fascination. Yet while fascination is a necessary condition it is not
sufficient. Three additional conditions also must be present (Kaplan & Talbot, 1983) for
mental restoration to occur: (1) being away, (2) compatibility, and (3) extent.
Being away is sometimes used as a shorthand phrase for escaping to a restorative
place. It involves a separation from the normal routines of work. A yearning to "get away
from it all" often results in one leaving the physical location of our mental effort. Yet all
too often, during this time away, we bring elements of the tasks and distractions of life
with us. If we can leave the MP3 player behind and not allow phone calls to interrupt us
then we are more likely to achieve restoration.
Compatibility can be described as a match between opportunities afforded or required by
a setting and our purposes (Kaplan, 1983). An environment that requires us to do other
than what we want to do is experienced as incompatible. The same is true of an
environment that fails to provide the information needed to carry out our intentions.
Clearly, there is an abundance of settings where the lack of such a match undermines
what one hopes to accomplish. Such incompatible settings not only prevent restoration
but may increase fatigue by requiring considerable mental effort to function safely. In a
highly compatible setting we more easily can achieve restoration since little directed
attention is needed to managing our interaction with the environment.
Extent involves the sense that we are in a “space.” This sense of space increases in
settings that have both scope and coherence (Kaplan, 1995). Scope keeps a single
experience going while coherence allows us to experience a setting as a unified whole.
Being able to explore this “whole other world” for an extended period of time increases
the restorative effect of a setting.
Nature as an exemplar
In principle there are many types of restorative settings that share the features
mentioned above. However, research has repeatedly highlighted the role of natural
settings in restorative experiences (Frumkin, 2001; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This idea
has been understood, at least anecdotally, for millennia. As early as imperial Rome small
independent farms were consolidated into large estates with gardens to allow recovery
from the mental wear and tear of urban life (Pregill & Volkman, 1999). In another context,
Olmsted observed in the 19th century that simply experiencing nature reduces the
burden of daily urban life. Kaplan notes that “Fredrick Law Olmsted not only understood
the possibility that the capacity to focus might be fatigued, he also recognized the need
for urban dwellers to recover this capacity in the context of nature” (Kaplan, 1995).
Gentle environments allow for reflection
A final issue has to do with the role reflection can play in attention restoration. Socrates
famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This may be partly because
the un-examined life may prove to be mentally fatiguing. We can be burdened by
distractions that are internal. Having to function despite internal anguish and confusion
(e.g., muddled set of priorities, conflicting values, nagging sense of helplessness) saps
mental vitality. Occasional reflection may help to reduce this internal noise but reflection
requires a particular type of setting.
A setting that might serve to restore the capacity to direct attention through a riot of
involuntarily fascinating stimuli is also a setting that will effectively distract attention away
from weak though important mental activity. Reflection is rarely compatible with
environments filled with the intensely fascinating. Environments of a dramatic nature - a
hike along a mountain ridge with a postcard vista, bird watching in the midst of spring
migration, a street art fair or autumn football game - can effortlessly capture attention.
Yet while such environments afford a certain level of attention restoration they also
prevent deep reflection.
It’s fortunate that, in addition to restoring the capacity to direct attention, some natural
settings also allow for reflection. In such settings we can deal with what is on our mind,
put in order our plans and priorities, and thus later have less internal noise with which to
PRESCRIPTION FOR A REVITALIZING WALK
Contained here are numerous researchable issues, many with important implications.
Nonetheless, Attention Restoration Theory and its related research are able to outline
the conditions under which walking functions to revitalize the mind.
Where to walk
Clearly, walking in natural settings promotes restoration. It is not necessary to seek out
spectacular environments since a tree-lined street, nearby park or open space will
suffice. In fact, to be restorative and allow for the introspection that Socrates
recommends, the environment must not overwhelm us with sensory input that is
boisterously fascinating. It also helps to be able to function without having to pay close
attention to the environment. The former need is fulfilled by natural settings that contain
a special version of involuntary fascination that couples aesthetics with gently fascinating
stimuli (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This “soft fascination” offers a special advantage in
terms of providing an opportunity for reflection. The latter requirement is provided by a
familiar and safe environment; with familiarity we can function competently and still have
mental capacity available for contemplation. An arboretum, Japanese garden, or urban
forest are examples of where restoration of directed attention and/or reflection can occur.
When to walk
It turns out that we are terrible judges of when we are mentally fatigued and in need of
restoration. There appears to be no readily available feedback system in the brain
alerting us to mental fatigue. By the time we notice the negative effects listed in Table 2
we are long past due for a break. Therefore, we are advised to schedule restorative
walks regularly, not just when we think we need them. Enlisting the aid of others to
monitor our need for restoration may be useful. We should learn to heed their advice to
“take a break” and keep to any planned restoration schedule since our belief that we
don’t need a break is most likely erroneous.
How to walk
Social walking, teaming up with walking partners, can be motivating and is a part of
many prescriptions for active living. However, if the goal is mental restoration, then we
are advised to consider solitary walking. As Table 1 suggests, there are a number of
causes of directed attention fatigue that can occur during a conversation with a walking
partner (e.g., listening carefully, withholding response, monitoring feelings). So while it is
possible that such conversations may aid our reflection on priorities and plans, such
insights will likely cause an immediate directed attention cost. Moderation and balance
would seem in order; just as the un-examined life is not worth living, the over-examined
life may be little improved.
What to do while walking
Whether lost in thought or involuntarily busy with observation, our attention will be
engaged in something. To the degree that we manage the process at all, restoration will
likely be enhanced if we plan ahead of time to be gently drawn to certain tasks. One
approach is to develop an “awareness plan” (Leff, 1984; Leff, Thousand, Nevin, &
Quiocho, 2002). Knowing that people find prediction and exploration fascinating (being
forms of process-based involuntary fascination) such plans involve adopting a playful,
curious orientation toward the environment. Inferring what might be happening in
backyards from the glimpse you get from the sidewalk, imagining how the nature present
might be perceived by another person, or envisioning what changes would make your
route more fascinating may all enhance the restorative benefits of a walk.
Supporting winter walking is important, particularly if we accept that year-round and life-
long mental effectiveness matters. In most parts of North America obvious signs of
nature diminish in winter. While people do find winter walks restorative, noticing nature
takes considerable vigilance and thus can consume directed attention. This is an area
where advice will have to await further research. However, two small pilot studies
conducted by the author suggest the importance of emphasizing the many veiled forms
of winter nature, and its more ephemeral character.
It is indeed fortunate that mental restoration requires nothing more than the simple act of
walking, particularly in natural settings. There seems to be no special advantage to time
spent in spectacular environments. A walk through an urban park, a lunch-time stroll
down a tree-line street, or an evening excursion through nearby nature will suffice. And
thus, this paper’s major prescription for enhancing mental vitality is simply to walk. To
walk outside, to walk regularly, and most importantly, to walk surrounded by nearby
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