To my fellow PREKURE coaches & students: I lay before you a challenge. You can of course accept, ignore, or modify this challenge. I challenge you to book a health coaching client in the next fortnight and undertake that coaching session whilst walking through nature with your client.
Henry David Thoreau said it best: ‘Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow’. Walking can be defined as to ‘proceed by steps‘, much like that of the behaviour change we seek in health coaching. What is to be gained from coming out of the environment we may be stuck in and experiencing things from a new perspective? While working on his famous theory of evolution, Charles Darwin’s best thinking was not done in his study. It was done on his daily walk, outside his house on a sandwalk path he called his ‘thinking path’. Each day Darwin made a little pile of stones on the path, he then kicked each one as he finished a turn around the path: Some ideas were four path problems. Not simply because he analysed data, but because he allowed his mind to wander as he kicked his stones. In fact, many great thinkers throughout history have used the simple action of walking to unlock their brain.
The case for getting movement outdoors is widening. We know that being outdoors is associated with greater grey matter volume in the brain. That sunshine increases vitamin D and hence brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) , a key player in positive emotions and improved insulin sensitivity. That screen time is reduced, improving being ‘in the now’ & lowering the risk of poor mental neuroplasticity. That the advantage of green & blue space may reduce cortisol levels & improve perceived stress. Going Barefoot is said to improve BDNF. Excitingly, the intersection of neuroscience and human psychology is at its dawn, we are only just understanding how social connection, a key determinant of health, improves BDNF, positive emotions & mirror neurons.
Then, there is the emerging science of moderate exercise in the order of walking for effective fat burning. Yet, for many the gap between thinking and doing causes mental friction and delay. As a health coach who has firmly joined our pioneering movement to encourage health ownership and action, I have and will continue to spend much time in the self-experimentation (N=1) phase, trialling and practicing the science of lifestyle medicine. Our health coaching experience informs us ‘that as health coaches we can only coach as far as we have come ourselves’. Through my own growth as a health coach, I have applied that same philosophy to the discovery of working alongside my clients. I would like to share with you some of the anecdotal evidence i have observed in the methodology of walking consistently in nature with my clients:
- Real time movement goals and wins are achieved. The mental friction of getting a movement habit started is overcome.
- Being in nature facilitates being ‘in the now’. Focus is narrowed and attention is primed.
- Sensory mindfulness (5 senses) exercises and practices can be introduced and habits established through the sounds, smells & feels of nature. For example: What are 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear…………around you?
- Strengthening the clients ‘reflection- while in-action’ muscle. Supporting your client to narrow their focus on what movement feels like for them, what they are noticing, where are the pain points, where they are in flow…..The possible curious questions here are endless & are connected to the doing. After all, health coaching is about supporting a client to get back the intuition and ‘knowing’ of their own body.
- Setting health coaching challenges, supporting the client to come out of their comfort zone. I had an interesting experience with a client recently after we had climbed a very steep hill together in one of our walking sessions. When I asked her to look up and out at the view, she was surprised at what she had achieved. Going up steep hills was something she had been nervous of, without even realising she had done it. She was in flow, she had now moved from her fear zone to her growth zone. She could celebrate.
- The opportunity to explore, find the mud, take the shoes off, jump in the water and be curious about the connection to your clients ‘inner child’ and nature.
- When walking alongside a client(s) there is no note taking, leaving the space to truly ‘dance in the moment’. The temptation in building the craft of health coaching is to record what you are hearing from your client, to capture all. The art is understanding this is not a necessity.
- Habit strength and new brain neural circuitry has begun.
A quasi-experimental study undertaken by Agnes Van De Berg in 2021 looked at 40 females who were suffering from work related stress & burnout. They were randomised into the: Walk and talk in nature and control group. Through her study Van De Berg suggests a promising potential for walk and talk coaching in the natural environment for the relief from burnout and stress related problems, with special emphasis on the relaxing and contemplative properties of natural environments. Although this is a small cohort, it does strike the ongoing question ‘what are the whole health benefits of walking and talking coaching?’. It begs the question, how can we continue to innovate as health coaches, push the boundaries and support new hypotheses in our field?
Health coaching walking sessions can provide the accessibility to thinking, feeling and reflection through movement rather than being static in the status quo. There are countless health benefits in getting out into nature with your health coaching clients. The emerging field of neuroscience is on a path to discover more in the months and years ahead. It is through my own experience as a health coach who uses ‘walking health coaching in nature’ as a methodology for practice, that I have discovered the many possibilities for positive outcome. For those who are stuck, ‘If you start now you will start seeing the results one day earlier, than if you wait until tomorrow.’ – Jairek Robbins.
- Gascon et al.,(2017). Outdoor blue spaces, human health and well-being: A systematic review of quantitative studies, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health.
- Lahart et al.,(2019) The effects of green exercise on physical and mental wellbeing: A systematic review, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
- Turner, A. (2017). Coaching Through Walking. The Coaching Psychologist, 13(2), 80-85. British Psychology Society.
Disclaimer: Please ensure that for any client(s) that you undertake walking health coaching with, that you have spent time co-creating the coaching agreement effectively. This would include assessing any potential harm & risk to the physical & mental health of both client and coach.