Spring has sprung, so it’s time to get outdoors and take a walk.
We’ve all heard the studies: being in nature and moving your body is good for your health. But what if you combined that walk in the park with a talking therapy session?
That’s what some mental health therapists across the country are doing. Practitioners call it “walk and talk” therapy.
“Rather than being enclosed in an office space, the therapy session takes place outside while we walk,” said Denice Clark, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Atlanta.
“I started a walk and talk therapy practice after reading about a gentleman in New York who had a practice in Central Park.” Clark takes her patients for walks in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, a crown jewel of Atlanta’s intown community.
“We’re moving forward literally and figuratively. I think it helps clients get unstuck,” said Clark, who calls her practice Sole to Soul Therapy.
“Naturally, exercise creates endorphins, those feel-good hormones. So for someone who may be experiencing depression or grief, just being outside can help improve their emotional and mental state. And then adding the therapy on top of that can help them.”
Atlantan Edward Adams, a gardener and a jogger, is a big fan. He is a patient who uses walk and talk therapy.
“Being outside puts me in the right frame of mind,” says Adams. “You’re not in this confined space. You have the entire environment. The park itself is really part of the therapy process.”
So far, there’s little clinical research into the effectiveness of walk and talk therapy. But the American Psychological Association’s website includes information about the benefits and possible downsides.
Toronto psychologist Dr. Kate Hays, author of “Working It Out: Using Exercise in Psychotherapy,” said the method has “a potential for much more openness and disclosure, capacity for insight, the ‘aha’ moments that we know are facilitated by physical activity.”
Therapists who use walk and talk therapy can be found in larger cities including Boston, New York, Austin, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. A quick Google search brings up dozens of practices from coast to coast.
Clark said she helps clients practice mindfulness on her walks with them.
“At times I’ve also incorporated some things we experience — breeze and rain, the rustle of the leaves, in terms of enhancing mindfulness about where we are in the moment. And helping my clients think about that when they go home,” said Clark.
“Because it’s outside and walking side by side, it’s much less formal (than in an office). Clients feel more relaxed and a little more free to address their issues.”
It’s not for everybody
There are some challenges. For one, keeping conversations confidential. Clark explains to all her patients before they begin their walks that they should be careful with anything they don’t want overheard.
“I also monitor our surroundings. If we’re a little too close to others, we’ll stop and let people pass.”
Also, therapists say, they need to be attuned to how fast their client wants to walk or if they’re not feeling up to it that day.
For some, getting therapy in an office is a better fit. Four walls create a boundary that provides more figurative and literal security for people.
Still, Adams said he prefers getting his therapy outdoors.
“It makes me open up a little differently. It makes the conversation seem just more natural — nothing’s forced. We’re just walking and talking and having a good time. The paths kind of lead us in certain connections. By the end of our walk I feel I’ve accomplished something and I’ve made some breakthroughs.”
And then there are always the benefits of multitasking in our busy lives.
“I have my Fitbit on here and I’ve gotten my steps in.”