For many of us, wrapping up in as many layers as you can find and going on a St Stephen's Day walk is an annual tradition.
In theory, it’s a great idea – a chance to take in a bit of fresh air and get your body moving after the inevitable excesses of Christmas Day. However, in practice it’s often a little trickier.
By the time December 26th rolls around, the idea of actually heaving yourself off the sofa, dusting off all the chocolate wrappers that have gathered around you, and braving the bleak weather can feel like a Herculean task.
If you’re still on the fence about your St Stephen's Day walk this year, here’s why you should definitely do it…
The physical benefits
Christmas is a time for indulgence – and that’s not something to feel bad about, particularly as it only comes around once a year. However, after a whole lot of food, booze and sweet treats, by December 26th you might not be feeling your best.
While you might not be up for an intense HIIT class, a gentle walk could be the thing to help your digestion (while being kind on your joints at the same time). “Our bowels work via peristalsis – the slow natural rhythmic process that moves food along, and this process is sped up by movement,” explains GP Dr Jeff Foster. A walk “will help speed the food through our gastrointestinal tract and on its way, which will make us feel a lot better”.
Particularly if you’ve had a bit too much Christmas champagne, the great outdoors can kickstart our metabolism – which “will help us metabolise some of the excess alcohol we drank”, says Dr Foster.
You also don’t need to be a medical professional to know a bit of fresh air can be the best tonic for a hangover. Dr Foster says: “Although the oxygen is no more concentrated outside, the fresh air, without heating or stale smells from the night before, can be very beneficial.”
Although in Ireland it is not possible for us to make vitamin D by being outside during the autumn and winter months (hence why supplementing is so often advised) – there are still lots of other potential health benefits to be gained from exposing yourself to some daylight.
The mental benefits
Having the extended family cooped up in one house over the festive period doesn’t always go smoothly (particularly when a few drinks are involved), and going on a walk could be the perfect opportunity to work on those relationships.
“We tend to walk side [by side] as we walk in groups,” says Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist with Good Thinking Psychological Services and author of The Grief Collective. “This allows us to have conversations with less pressure, and it can allow conversation to flow more easily.
“The physical actions of being out and about and seeing other people and wildlife can also create a structure for conversations, which can help ease the pressure to come up with topics.”
It also gives you a chance to refresh your own mental state and literally stomp off some stress. “If we are feeling overwhelmed or like we are getting cabin fever, a walk can actually help us to alter the way we are feeling,” explains Dr Trent. “This is because the physical act of powering our legs in order to walk means we use both hemispheres of our brain. When we think about difficult things whilst walking, it can actually help us to process.”
Dr Foster agrees with this analysis, saying: “We know that levels of stress in families are often highest over the Christmas period. Therefore a walk, even if together, helps us gain a degree of separation and removal of claustrophobia.”