Reading about a fitness enthusiast’s mention of “Vitamin G” left me stumped recently. I recalled some of my college buddies many moons ago had told me about Vitamin W, as in “Weed,” but Vitamin G was a mystery. I soon found out that Vitamin G is a nickname for something very important to people who want to walk for health.
Vitamin G is an acronym for “green space.” Green space is a broad term encompassing trails, parks, forests, streams and meadows.
Few people would argue that walking in these areas can help our psyche. The reason for this is fascinating, but before I discuss that, you should know about the many other important (and surprising) health benefits that walking in these areas can do for you.
What Happens When You Spend All Your Time In Nature and Then Stop?
In the research paper Preventive Medical Effects of Nature Therapy, published by scientists at Chiba University in Japan, they explain:
For more than 99.99 percent of humans’ evolutionary history (likely 5 million years), we walked in nature. For less than 0.01% of our existence we have been in urban environments.
It may seem like we have been living in cities forever, but it is important to think about where we have been walking in relative terms. And for the most part, we have walked in fields, ravines, along lakes and oceans and so on.
It was not until around 10,000 years ago, with the invention of modern agriculture, that we no longer needed to walk miles all day searching for food. We began to live in small communities or towns, many of which later became cities.
Our cells, chemistry, brain, physiology—every aspect of us has evolved, or was designed and adapted to work with (and in) nature.
Sadly, most of us now find ourselves walking around (unless you are in your car) in urban areas. Most likely, artificiality surrounds you. Few of the sights, sounds and odors you experience most of the day are natural. Some city or suburb streets do not even have trees! Or if they do, it may be one ever few hundred feet that the developer was forced to plant.
Why Horses Don’t Have Headlights
As walkers, we now have at our disposal technology that gives us the ability to walk indoors–treadmills. Some of these machines are quite sophisticated, equipped with built in TVs, iPod ports, radios and computer screens.
Technology pushing us away from nature is not new. In the book “Great Possessions: An Amish Farmer’s Journal” an Amish farmer discusses why he uses a horse over a tractor.
“Because God didn’t create the horse with headlights, we don’t work at nights,” he explains. Technology, in this case a tractor, would create a chiasm between the farmer and his connection with the world’s natural illumination. (As an aside, research shows that the Amish live longer (3 years on average for men) then Americans and they have less hospital visits.)
The problem with the treadmill (and most other exercise technology) is that research shows that people who walk on treadmills feel like they exert themselves more than when walking outdoors when in reality these people actually exerted themselves more when walking outside–it just didn’t feel that way! (For more on this, see my article The Surprise Reason Walking on a Treadmill Could Sabotage Your Workout).
In the short term, feeling as if you have worked harder on the treadmill (than walking outside) may not be a big deal. After all, we usually feel good after exerting ourselves. However, over time feeling exertion when walking could sap your motivation to walk every day or walk as much each day. That is, you are less likely to walk when you feel more fatigued.
The only difference in this study, between indoor and outdoor walking, was Vitamin G. Somehow, and we will talk more about this, being outdoors made the participants walk more strenuously than when on a treadmill while believing that they were NOT working as hard.
The bottom line is: We get a better workout walking outdoors and even better, we feel less tired.
But, what about the scientifically proven effects of walking outdoors–walking with Vitamin G–on other aspects of our health? I will look our heart, immunity, ability to fight off cancer and other afflictions, but let’s start with stress, as everyone today seems to have some.
How Does Walking With Vitamin G Compare to a Night In The Lazy-boy?
Interestingly, when scientists did research comparing walking in a city, a park or relaxing in a chair to alleviate mental fatigue, a walk in the park won.
Personally, a night in the recliner would seem a lot more appealing but science says otherwise. Here is the bottom line on mental fatigue: The next time you come home from work mentally exhausted, go for a walk in a park rather than plop down in the recliner.
Reading this, I began to wonder: What special “medicine” is a literal “walk in the park” giving us that the recliner or city is not? Clearly, there’s a lot more to Vitamin G.
Something else might be at work with Vitamin G too. Successful long-term walkers relate that they only use their treadmill once or twice a week, typically when the weather is bad.
They explain that when they walk on the treadmill they “do not feel like they are getting anywhere.”
It seems that when we physically walk somewhere (outside that is) we feel a greater sense of accomplishment afterwards.
For me, returning home after a long walk leaves me feeling a much greater sense of achievement than simply walking longer on the treadmill. (I do not know if other people experience this, but if you do I would be interested to learn about it.)
Do You Need Shinrin-yoku?
In Japan people will go on “forest bathing” trips that they call Shinrin-yoku. The government defined this term as making contact with the forest and experiencing the atmosphere of the forest. The Japanese government considers forest bathing trips to be a recognized relaxation and stress reduction activity.
In a study done in 2009 Japanese researchers studied Shinrin-yoku. They found that a walk in a forest (compared to a walk in an urban area):
1. Reduced blood pressure
2. Lowered cortisol (a chemical related to stress)
3. Decreased pulse rate
What is particularly interesting is that just sitting in a forest is not enough. Those people who walked in the forest experienced the greatest drop in cortisol and their blood pressure.
Clearly, something special occurs when you mix some Vitamin G with your walking, as simply choosing to walk for health in green space–effortlessly–improves the benefits of walking.
The researchers explain how cortisol levels affect the activity of certain cells called Natural Killer (NK) cells. Natural killer cells influence our immune response or our ability to fight disease. High cortisol levels lower these NK cells and put us risk for illness.
Because cortisol is lower when walking in natural environments, the researchers conclude that Shinrin-yoku likely boosts our immunity.
Again, this is interesting and in line with other studies showing that walking by itself, without Vitamin G, improves our immunity.
Researchers in Japan in 2011 looked again at Shinrin-yoku and found similar findings as the 2009 scientists, but this time they performed a more in-depth analysis of a forest bath’s effects on our immunity. They concluded:
Natural killer cells, the cells that help us fight off illness, increased significantly. More importantly, a month after walking in the forest and living in an urban area, these natural killers had retained some of their elevated numbers. On average, a month later they were an incredible 23% higher!
In response to this important discovery, the scientists write that it clearly shows “the preventive medical effects of nature therapy.”
And they go on:
“We expect nature therapy to play an increasingly important role in preventive medicine in the future.”
So the next time you feel a cold coming on or just run down add some Vitamin G to your walking. Days and weeks later, your body’s immunity will be elevated.
Beyond colds and feeling run down, another study, by the Nippon Medical School, showed that walking in a forest specifically, as compared to a city, boost anti-cancer proteins.
These anti-cancer proteins were found to remain elevated significantly for at least seven days after walking in the forest.
So adding Vitamin G to your walking at least once a week would likely improve your chances of not getting cancer (or perhaps fighting it off).
What You Breathe Matters
Prior to reading these studies, I had never given much thought to aromatherapy. That’s changing now. For those of you who do not know about aromatherapy, it is the inhaling of aromatic essential oils from plants to alleviate or cure health problems.
Some studies of Shinrin-yoku have said that the possible beneficial effects of walking in nature may be related to inhaling the natural wood oils in trees and foliage.
The study I just discussed, from the Nippon Medical School, found that these aromatic oils released from trees, called phytoncides, decrease cortisol and as a result, increases natural killer (NK) cells–the cells that help impart immunity.
Perhaps, part of the increased benefit scientists observe when Vitamin G is combined with walking (as opposed to just sitting in a green space) is because walking gets us breathing deeper. And deeper breathing helps us to inhale more of the aromatic oils from the the trees and plants.
I urge you to pay more attention to the scent of the area where you are walking. Clearly, breathing in exhaust fumes from a nearby truck is not going to have the same affect on me as a smelling a flower or a fern.
Make it a point to breathe in deeply through your nose (not your mouth) and truly savor the scent of the trees and foliage. You may not only be enjoying a pleasant smell, but could be giving your body a host of healthy aromatherapy-induced benefits.
I recently went for a walk during a light rain when the oils released from the trees were strong and powerful. This walk turned out to be one of the most relaxing walks if have ever taken. Now, I look forward to rainy days (of course, do not walk among trees if there’s a risk of lightning).
The “Urban Brain” Verses Your Brain on Vitamin G
A fascinating study published this past January by researchers from Britain’s Heriot-Watt University who went to unprecedented levels in analyzing the “urban brain” and the effect of Vitamin G on individuals while exercising.
The researchers explain that modern psychology practice has a “restorative theory” that says natural environments help us recover from stress and fatigue. Opposing this theory is the concept that demanding stimulation, often seen in urban areas, increases demand on our brain and increases stress and fatigue.
How WHERE We Walk Alters the Function Of Our Brain
The scientists wanted to see how different settings affect people while they are walking through them. Using electroencephalography (EEG) technology the researchers recorded changes in the electrical activity of participants’ brain waves as they were walking through different environments or zones.
The participants walked through three zones:
1. An urban shopping street
2. A path through green space
3. A street in a busy commercial district
Where You Walk Does Matter
“It is interesting to note that the transition from zone 1 to zone 2 (urban shopping street to green space) is in line with restorative theory with reductions in arousal, frustration, and engagement . . . and an increase in meditation.”
As expected when participants moved out of the green space to urban areas, the scientists observed “higher engagement” set in, stressing the brain.
But more than stress, research is beginning to show that your mind may actually function better when you walk in nature. In a study done in 2012, scientists showed that walking in nature lessens depression and improved memory. They write:
“Participants exhibited significant increases in memory span after the nature walk relative to the urban walk.”
The scientists go as far as recommending: “interacting with nature may be useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments for major depression.”
I absolutely love that these noted researchers use the word “supplement” when referring to Vitamin G! You will see shortly how to best make use of this supplement, and learn about even more amazing benefits for those of us who are walking for health.
The Power of Vitamin G for Your Children and Grandchildren
To be clear, walking with Vitamin G is not just for the old or middle-aged. It benefits all of us, from the youngest to the oldest, from the healthy to those troubled, stressed, depressed or outright sick. In fact, the sick may benefit even more.
A study by the University of Illinois found that children with attention deficit disorder who wend for a 20 minute walk in a park concentrate better than children who walked in a city environment. More importantly, the improved concentration was equivalent to regularly prescribed drug for attention deficit disorder (ADHD). The scientists write:
“Doses of nature” might serve as a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible new tool in the tool kit for managing ADHD symptoms.
Again, the scientists use the word “doses”—as if Vitamin G were medicine. Frankly, it is. They know it, and now you do too!
Researchers have also found the adolescent girls who live near parks exercise more than those who do not. This would seem to be common sense, but I have discovered that common sense is not that common. I could easily see a parent buying their daughter an expensive treadmill and wondering why the child is not using it.
Can Vitamin G Increase Your Motivation to Walk for Health?
Researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom analyzed a total of eleven different scientific studies on exercising outdoors in green space verses indoors. They found:
“Participants reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and declared a greater intent to repeat the activity at a later date.”
So if you enjoy walking/exercising more, you are more likely to do it again. Given that you should walk every day, by walking in a green space you boost enjoyment and ensure that you are more likely to walk again tomorrow.
The Power of Vitamin G + Walking
Walking combined with a dose of Vitamin G has an almost curative effect on many of the things ail us. It has a proven, positive impact on mood (stress, anxiety and depression), memory, immunity (transient illness, cancer), and blood pressure. In time I believe we will probably learn that walking + Vitamin G helps us in many more ways.
I would bet that if you took a moment to think about how good you feel when you walk in a ravine or by a stream, you would know, intuitively, that walking in these places are good for you. Yet, technology, our brick and mortar homes, condominiums, office buildings, and suburban and city streets have pushed us away from nature.
Anyone who has walked through city streets, hearing the drone of vehicles and the occasional honking horn or siren, knows the feeling that occurs as they step away from the street and into a wooded park or trail. There is a natural change in your spirit as you walk from the city into a green space.
You may be walking at exactly the same pace, yet in the green space you cannot help but feel the Vitamin G infusing your body and soul. You not only feel different, your chemistry, physiology, heart rate are functioning differently.
This change throughout our body, effortlessly, unconsciously, is an unbelievable miracle. Most of us take the power of walking with Vitamin G for granted. Yet, if drug companies could find a way to package it and sell it, doctors would prescribe it, and our health insurance companies would pay for it. We would all be lining up for it, too.
Best of all, if you walk with Vitamin G you may get to the point where you do not need prescription medication at all.
It’s time to not just embrace Vitamin G or walking by themselves, but together, as one powerful activity: G-Walking.
I am not talking about Gangsta Walking, or walking with God, though you may feel that way when you are walking in nature. Instead, I am talking about resolving to walk at least once a month, or once a week, or even daily somewhere beautiful, natural and GREEN.
The power walking in the green, of G-Walking, is not new. In fact, this is part of the reason I believe walking in natural environments such as streams, meadows, lakes and other “green spaces” feels so right for us. For millions of years these areas had abundant food and water–they meant survival. On some level, today our mind still senses these are good places for us to be.
Many of you may have lost your connection with nature. Now you can reclaim it, embrace it and take the benefits of walking to a whole new level!
Where Can You Get Your Vitamin G?
Vitamin G is not something you can order from Amazon or pick up at the local drugstore. You need to go to it!
As I compile Flowalking’s Walking Databases, I am hoping people add more events, clubs and trails on the site. I realize I need more places for my walkers to go when they want green spaces—however, by the latest count we are at over 500 walking routes!
By the way, if your community has some Vitamin G places that encourage walking (or G-Walking), please add it to the Walking Routes Database. The more of your friends and neighbors who use it, the more likely your town or city leaders will maintain it, add to it and lastly, hopefully never be convinced to sell it off to a real estate developer!
Vitamin G At “Work” in America
I recently discovered the Rails to Trails Conservancy website. These folks know about the power of G-Walking. Rails to Trails is a great resource to find new places to walk to get your G-Walk medicine.
The Rails to Trails concept is brilliant: the organization takes now-defunct rail lines and assesses how they’d work as trails for walking, biking and running. Of course, since most of these old rail lines run through nature, far from the honking horns of vehicles, they make ideal places to G-Walk.
Rails to Trails saw that connection and hasn’t looked back. From a gorgeous stretch of Northern California to the historic Western Maryland Rail Trail, this D.C.-based organization is doing the kind of work health enthusiasts everywhere need.
G-Walking: A “Game Changer” For Those Who Walk For Health
I’m always quick to point out the splendid benefits of walking. There is no better exercise for the human body, no matter your age or physical condition. It can relieve your symptoms from physical and mental ailments, making walking a bona fide “soul healer” as well as balm for the body.
The studies about walking with Vitamin G (G-Walking) tell the other side of the story. Before we “civilized” the different parts of this country, they were covered in spectacular greenery. It’s only been recently that we’ve started to reclaim the earth’s heritage.
When we try to save the planet, we are really just saving ourselves. This effort can be big or small. Just convincing your local community leaders to add a walking trail or a park can create a retreat from the bustle of your town or city.
I would even suggest that you use your car—if absolutely necessary—and drive to a green space near you for a G-Walk. In fact, I would rather see you drive to park to walk than drive to a fitness center and get on a treadmill.
Use America’s green spaces for your walking for health and become a regular G-Walker. You will feel better and enjoy walking more, and you will be much more likely to walk again tomorrow. If you have friends, family or children who enjoy walking, tell them about the power of walking with Vitamin G–of G-Walking. They will thank you, and I will too!
Walk On (with Vitamin G)!
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P.S. Do you know someone who might find this article interesting? Please use the share buttons at the bottom of this page to email this article to them or post it on Facebook.
Make sure you do not miss any news or articles for walking for health, benefits of walking, fitness and wellness by subscribing to my newsletter. Just type your email into the subscribe box at the top of this page. I will never give out your email and you can cancel at any time.