The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone – some have suffered illness or loss while most have experienced the stress and anxiety brought about by the recurring lockdowns coupled with uncertainty about the future.

But while, for much of the year, we were confined to our localities, the country is now accessible to all, and health experts everywhere agree that being in nature, particularly close to water, is a powerful way to relieve stress and improve mental wellbeing.

Psychologist Peadar Maxwell says walking beside a river or canal is a fantastic way to give ourselves some headspace.

“It really is great for the mind, it breaks the monotony or sitting or doing and, for some, it also stops the cycle of ruminating about problems or challenges,” he says. “It allows us to notice the beautiful nature around us, to get fresh air and to switch off from the cyber world – in effect, we are practicing a type of mindfulness.”

Frank Greally, founder of Irish Runner magazine, agrees. He walks every day and says it always improves his mood and helps him to feel calm and relaxed.

“I love to walk and make sure that I get a few miles in every day,” says the former runner. “This year, I started off with the 100 days of walking challenge and then carried it on afterwards. I never miss a day as I feel it is so therapeutic.

“Last year I walked from Ballyhaunus in Mayo, where I was raised, to the Coombe Hospital in Dublin where I was born. A lot of the route was along the banks of the Royal Canal, and it was absolutely beautiful. There is something very special about walking beside water – it allows you and your mind to meander, wander and just go with the flow, literally. It is incredibly calming as there is no traffic or noise other than what is happening on the water – it’s a really mindful experience.”

Frank, who promotes the Daily Mile initiative in schools around the country for Athletics Ireland, had company for most of the journey as people dipped in and out to accompany him, but while he enjoyed the chats he had along the way, there was also time for reflection.

“It was a very special experience and I really enjoyed everyone’s company, especially Frank Fahy who came with me for the whole journey,” he says. “We discovered lots of little gems along the way and also met some very interesting people – and it was a great time for reflection and remembering some of the great people I’ve known in my life, some who unfortunately are not around anymore, including my grandfather who would talk to me about how he walked up to 10 miles to take part in a sporting event or how people he knew would walk miles to dances.

“I was also reminded of the people walking in famine times and it really hit me when I saw the symbolic shoes by the canal – they were on an entirely different journey to what I was on, and I think it does us good to remember them.”

Frank, who still holds the Irish record for 10,000 metres from 1970, says he never thought that walking would become such a big part of his life.

“I always saw myself as a runner but realised that unless I was running all the time, it would become more and more laboured, so I decided to try walking,” he says. “It has brought me to a whole new discovery, slowed down my pace and given me a purpose and a gratitude for the journey I have had in my life and all the things I have been privileged to do.

“Walking, by water in particular, is such a wonderful experience and apart from all the physical benefits it brings, I would encourage everyone to give it a try, as I believe that no matter how you feel beforehand and whatever the weather, you will feel more relaxed afterwards.

Senior psychologist, Peadar Maxwell agrees and says the sounds, colours and smells we experience while on a riverside, countryside or even city walk, does wonders for our mental health. He says we should all try to get out as often as we can, and encourage friends and family to join us, along the riverbanks and canal paths across the country.

“Psychological studies have shown that the simple act of getting out for a walk can lift our mood, help improve our wellbeing and give us more control over our health,” he says. “One study even indicated that regular walkers had improved sleep – so walking is not only a good form of exercise in and of itself but also a great was to connect with our surroundings.

“It would be good to encourage friends and family members to also reap the benefits of walking but remember that some people may find it more of a challenge, so allow them some choice over the timing, distance and route, if at all possible.

“And while it is nice to catch up with others, it is also okay to walk in silence – so if you are not normally a walker, make the most of the remainder of the bright evenings and give it a try – you may find that you enjoy it.”

Find your perfect waterside route at https://www.waterwaysireland.org/

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