January is a time when diets and fitness come to the fore, with 10,000 steps a day being a popular target. Such calls have wormed their way into my mind and while walking through the woods in the rain the other day I thought about steps in nature – if people are working towards 10,000 steps each day, there’s good reason to make several thousand of them in nature.
Exercise in nature works better, for example, it is known to increase self-esteem more than other exercise locations. Further, simply being in a natural environment is good for us. Finally, getting out into nature is a key part of connecting to it, which is good for us and good for nature too.
However, taking 10,000 steps a day can be difficult, particularly for those in more sedentary jobs. It’s roughly 5 miles a day, 6 for me and my long legs. Spending a couple of hours walking a day needs to be interesting for it to be sustained into a habit. That interest can be provided by the everyday nature around us – a daily dose of nature should be part of a healthy lifestyle.
Nature always has a story to tell, the key is tuning the senses in to it. Every walk is nature’s story and each step is another word in the story of the day – a 10,000 word story. The sun can light a different chapter in one place, as can the rain, breeze and sky; time and orbit. Each passing bird and leaf unfurled is a new sentence. I find that birch tell the story of the day very well, always ready to receive autumn and a winter form that can describe a day; the first to feel breath and the deeper the breath of air the more they can voice.
When one becomes familiar with nature in local places, it can also tell of stories past. Each walk becomes an external memory in a shared mind, each route a scene full of cues. Locations and plants that trigger recollections from previous steps taken. The bridge where the starlings gather, the street with an exhilaration of swifts, or the post where the blackbird sang. Each path, each tree, each flower and bird, is connected to another time. Each scent and reflection, each cloud and gust of wind, both a present connection and memory weaving your self into the nature of your neighbourhood.
The local neighbourhood is the most practical and sustainable location for a daily dose of nature. It can easily become a familiar landscape that regularly and closely observed can give new things each day – especially as a natural wilderness can be found within a single bloom. Walking from the door, even if it is on asphalt footpaths through modest settlements or parks with trees, makes regular trips more likely.
A further benefit of finding nature locally is that it can be accessed in small pockets of time, thereby accumulating 10,000 steps throughout the day. The other aspect of time, is time of day, and getting to know your nature neighbourhood, from dawn (which I rarely achieve), to dusk (my regular companion). The times when you are free to walk will coincide with all weathers, so engage with them all as they bring change to the familiar. The quality of light, immersion of rain and tug of the wind are all there to be understood more fully. With time and weather the landscape is constantly redescribed creating a story of the day to grab and enjoy – 10,000 steps can become a natural pleasure.
Pretty, J., Peacock, J., Sellens, M., & Griffin, M. (2005). The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise. International journal of environmental health research, 15(5), 319-337.