A leisurely stroll through a verdant wood is a lovely way to relax. If you live or work in the city, however, most of your opportunities for daily walking probably involve concrete sidewalks rather than leaf-strewn paths.
And there’s the rub, if you’re hoping that a walk will quiet your racing mind and soothe your jangled nerves. Numerous studies have shown that a walk down city streets is generally less calming than a nature hike. But that doesn’t mean city dwellers have to miss out on all the mental health benefits of walking. The steps below can make an urban walk more relaxing and refreshing.
Choose your time and place.
If you’re dodging cars at rush hour, your mind and body need to be on high alert. That’s a smart, self-protective response to a dangerous situation, but it’s also the antithesis of relaxation. Ask yourself whether there are ways you could rearrange your walking routine to increase your physical safety and psychological comfort. For example, if you like walking on your lunch hour but don’t enjoy the noontime crowds, maybe you could go to lunch at 1:00 rather than noon.
Find green space, if possible.
Whenever possible, seek out a park, riverside trail or tree-lined boulevard for your walk. Research shows that spending as little as 15 minutes in an urban pocket of nature can help counteract stress and boost your mood. It’s like a quick trip to the country for your mind, without your body ever having to leave the city.
In a recent, small randomized trial, heart disease patients took half-hour walks every day for a week, either in a city park or along a busy street. Both groups benefited from the exercise. But the park walkers showed greater reductions in heart rate and diastolic blood pressure as well as more improvement in exercise tolerance.
Slow down the frenetic pace.
The fast pace of city life is reflected in people’s walking speed. In one series of experiments, volunteers were asked to walk a set route through the city of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic. They tended to walk faster in areas with no greenery and more traffic, compared to greener, lower-traffic areas. This may reflect a tendency to think of walking along a busy street as strictly utilitarian or even aversive — in either case, something to be hurried through as quickly as possible.
Make a conscious choice to slow down your walking a bit. By doing so, you’re reversing the message and telling yourself that this is an experience worthy of your time and attention — maybe even something you could enjoy.
Be mindful of the sidewalk.
Walking on a bustling sidewalk, there’s a lot happening around you — honking horns, blinking lights, jostling pedestrians and maybe a smelly alley thrown in for good measure. This onslaught of sensory stimulation, some of it unpleasant, can be stressful if you aren’t mentally prepared to handle it.
Learn to approach such situations with mindfulness. The idea is to notice and accept your walking experience as it unfolds without being overwhelmed by it. To ease into this mindset, first spend some time becoming aware of how your feet and legs feel as you stride along — the firm pressure of the sidewalk against the soles of your feet, the rhythmic contraction and release of your leg muscles.
Don’t try to forcibly block out other sensations. Even if you could do that, it wouldn’t be safe; you still need to know when the traffic signal says “don’t walk.” If your attention is drawn elsewhere for a few minutes, that’s fine. When you can, gently remind yourself to notice the sensations of walking — something you might otherwise ignore unless you’re having a problem such as foot pain or knee stiffness.
Think like a videographer.
Once you’re feeling calmer, gradually direct more of your awareness to what’s going on around you. Try to simply observe your surroundings without getting hung up on subjective evaluations. That can be hard to do. One mental trick that works for me is imagining that I’m a videographer whose job is to capture the sights and sounds of the city — recording the experience without editing it.
Coping with the gratingly loud sounds on a noisy block can pose a particular challenge. Although you could mask the noise by listening to soothing music through earphones, there’s a limit to how much sound you can safely block out in this environment. You still need to be able to hear a horn beeping if you step into traffic, for example. It may be wiser to just accept the din of traffic, sirens and construction work as the soundtrack for your imaginary movie — and then choose a quieter “filming” location next time, if you can.