I discovered a lot of new things in lockdown. I discovered I’m rubbish at baking. I found out I love painting. I discovered a newfound appreciation for my local high street, including a roster of independently owned shops and locally-sourced treats. But most of all, I discovered that I love walking. And I mean love walking – I would go so far as to say it’s my favourite past time, alongside napping and taking baths. And during the darker days of lockdown, when our one-hour daily walks served as the only reminder of the outside world, I found walking to be a bit of a life line when it came to mental health.
There is something incredibly grounding about walking, especially among nature (I live in London, so when I say nature, I just mean anywhere with a tree or two), where you can breathe fresh air, absorb natural sunlight and put your phone away for a few liberating moments. Plus, I found it really helps to establish perspective at times when everything seems overwhelming. There is so much life and beauty all around us, and it exists outside of the insular little worlds we create for ourselves (which were made all the smaller due to lockdown). It was reassuring to hear the birds twittering, watch the grass blowing in the wind, and see squirrels squirrelling totally oblivious and utterly unfazed by the prospect of a global pandemic and imminent economic crisis.
While the power of walking was a massive revelation to me, it’s something that has been recognised as a way to take care of your mental health for years, which is why in 2016, journalist Bryony Gordon decided to ask a few people to walk with her. “I was not very well at the time and I was out running on Clapham Common near where I live, trying to make myself feel better. I couldn’t help but notice that there were all these people getting together – footballers, runners, groups of mums,” she says. “I thought, with so many of us out there suffering, why are there not groups of people with mental health issues here on the Common too?”
Bryony sent out a Tweet, inviting anyone who was interested in meeting her at a little café near the Serpentine on Valentine’s Day 2016 to join her for a walk. “To my utter surprise, 20 people turned up on the rainy morning and Mental Health Mates was born.”
Mental Health Mates is a network of peer support groups run by people with mental health issues, who meet regularly to walk, exercise and share without fear or judgement. They’ve recently joined forces with beauty brand BECCA to launch a limited edition Under Eye Brightening Corrector, and BECCA has donated £10,000 to support their efforts. “They wanted to support us and help our mission to shine a light on those suffering in darkness,” says Bryony. “For me, running or going for a walk is a moment for me to do something good for myself; I spent so many years not looking after myself or doing things that would harm my body, now I celebrate these moments.”
As we face the prospect of stricter social distancing measures and potentially a second lockdown, it’s more important than ever to take care of our mental health and make the most of the opportunity to get outside into the fresh air. “Research has found that there are significant psychological benefits in being around nature,” says Dr. Becky Spelman, counselling psychologist at The Private Therapy Clinic. “It’s calming for people and helps them to be mindful and be present in the moment. The benefits should not be underestimated – it really does wonders for mental health.”