Article

Walking for Mental Vitality: Some Psychological Benefits of Walking in Natural Settings

01/2007;

ABSTRACT 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.

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