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Ros Dodd on how an untimely death should encourage us all to cherish every day a little bit more.

When was the last time you went for a walk? I don't mean when did you last walk to the bus stop or stride down the high street in search of a retail bargain. What I mean is when did you walk for the sake of walking, look around at the vibrant autumnal hues, watch the clouds drifting across the sky and drink in the crisp air?

The answer, I suspect, is quite some time ago.

These days, we are too busy, too preoccupied or too darn lazy to take a break from the hurly-burly of modern living to smell the roses. There is always something more pressing to do than take ourselves off into the local park or nearby countryside and take joy in our natural surroundings.

Yet the benefits of ‘communing' with Nature far outweigh the sense of ‘wasted' time spent doing so. A study by conservation experts at Natural England has found that going out for a stroll can boost fitness levels and prevent obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It can also cut stress levels, accelerate recovery from operations and help children with attention disorders.

The study's author, Dr William Bird, said: ‘Increasing evidence suggests that both physical and mental health are improved through contact with Nature. Yet people are having less contact with Nature than at any other time in the past. This has to change.'

If my question at the beginning of this article had been ‘when did you last pump iron or “power walk” on the gym treadmill'? the answer might be very different. My hunch is that many of you would say ‘the day before yesterday'.

But before you start feeling virtuous, here's what Dr Bird also found in his study: that people are more likely to keep up regular exercise routines such as walking if they take place in natural surroundings instead of on a gym treadmill.

To me, this makes perfect sense, as does another piece of research, published this week, which says that dog owners can ward off depression and loneliness simply by walking their mutt on a daily basis.

A study by the University of Portsmouth found that Britain's 6.2 million dogs motivate their owners to exercise every day, even when they don't feel like it.

The owners reported that the exercise gives them a better overall sense of well-being, and they often meet like-minded people, making them feel happier.

Participants also found that even if they are feeling low, they always feel better once they are outside.

None of this is rocket science - it's common sense really. Yet so few of us are willing or able to tear ourselves away from the rat-race and rediscover the art of quiet contentment, which Nature can help us achieve if we let her. Instead, we work our rocks off and spend our lives in a stressful frenzy in the misguided belief that one day we will be able to sit back and relax.

There are two very good reasons why this approach to life is ill-judged: one is that by the time we are in a position to sit back and relax, we will have entirely lost the art of doing so. The second is that we might never see that day: two weeks ago, the long-standing partner of a great friend of mine died, at the age of 40, from pancreatic cancer. A fantastic guy, a wonderful science teacher and a devoted partner and father - gone, just like that.

Ironically, Matt always smelled the roses. He loved his life, he appreciated what he had with Lisa and his two young children, yet his life was snuffed out tragically early.

We can learn a lot from him - to enjoy our families, to luxuriate in simply being alive and to honour the natural world which brings and sustains life as much as it brings death.

Today, Lisa took their baby son for a long, leisurely walk in the November sunshine. She had felt desperate earlier in the day, but she felt less so having immersed herself in the natural world to which Matt has returned. She said the walk had restored her feeling of ‘blessed numbness'.

While we have our health, our friends and family and our equilibrium, wouldn't it be wise to harness our appreciation of the simple things in life - the things that, at the end of the day, are the key to giving us what we all desire - happiness?


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