Take a winter walk

I’ve written quite a bit recently about the benefits of spending time in unspoiled Nature. For example, we know that you get more benefits from walking in the woods than you do walking indoors on a treadmill. Plus, a new study shows that walking in Nature with a group of friends can help counter stress and improve mental health.

For this study, researchers from University of Michigan and Edge Hill University in the U.K. followed nearly 2,000 people who participated in England’s Walking for Health program. This program helps coordinate nearly 3,000 weekly group walks for 70,000 people a year.

The study had a bit of an unusual design, as participants chose whether to take a daily walk…they weren’t assigned to do it.

But after 13 weeks, men and women who chose to take a group walk at least once per week experienced more positive emotions and lower stress. They also experienced significantly less depression. Plus, they better handled the negative effects of stressful life events, such as the death of a family member.

Of course, given the study’s design, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that people who were more inclined to walk in the first place may start out with a better frame of mind.

But one more finding from this study caught my attention…

The researchers learned that participants gained more benefits by taking frequent, short walks than those who took occasional, longer walks. So, this finding means you don’t have to hike the entire Appalachian Trail to get benefits. (Although, for a hilarious look at the very longest of walks in Nature, read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.)

Since stress in our modern world will never go away completely, it’s important to have effective coping mechanisms. And it looks like something as simple as taking a walk in the woods with some friends can help. And don’t let old man winter stop you from taking a walk in Nature. One of my most memorable walks took place during the winter of 2000 in Big Sky, Montana.

That winter, I spoke at one of those infamous, tax-deductible medical conferences held at a ski resort. They brought me in to educate some old-line medical practitioners about the benefits of complementary/alternative medicine and natural approaches.

But the conference was so rigged, by the end, the vast majority of old-liners remained convinced they would do better (especially financially) to stick with their old ways of dispensing more drugs and high-tech invasive procedures.

Ronald Dworkin, M.D., a part-time practicing physician in Baltimore and scholar at the Hudson Institute, was the only other person at the meeting truly trying to convince the doctors that a new millennium was here. He too tried to persuade the doctors that they needed to make fundamental changes in the practice of medicine.

Ronald came with his wife, Alexandra (Sandy) Roosevelt, the great granddaughter of President Theodore Roosevelt. Sandy’s sister was married to William Weld, the Governor of Massachusetts, where I grew up. So we developed a fast friendship, which led to many stimulating conversations about medicine, politics, and American history–and how they all intersect.

As you might expect, the conference sessions were short that week. And most of the day was left to enjoy the ski slopes.

So–Ron, Sandy and I escaped on our free afternoons to drive down about 90 minutes through the beautiful winter landscape to the northwest entrance of Yellowstone National Park. It was on the border between Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. We put on snow shoes and tracked antelopes, bears, bison, moose, wolves, and other wildlife through footprints in the snow.

Walking in winter has its own special majesty with bare tree branches and vast vistas that are unattainable during the rest of the year. In fact, a walk in the woods in winter can be an awe-inspiring treat. So bundle up and take a winter walk this week with friends. You’ll feel better for it.


  1. “Examining Group Walks in Nature and Multiple Aspects of Well-Being: A Large-Scale Study,” Ecopsychology, September 2014