Standing barefoot outside in the depths of winter may sound uninviting but as Claire Munnings discovers, it can have a profound impact on your wellbeing
As the nights keep drawing in and the temperature continues to drop, our days are often spent hibernating indoors, cosying up next to a fire and shutting out the chilly winter weather. But, this year, I’m going to suggest you don’t just stay inside.
When you think about it, it’s terrifying how much time we spend indoors. Recent research undertaken by beauty brand Liz Earle found the typical woman enjoys just 25 minutes of fresh air a day, while other studies suggest we spend an average of 22 hours a day within four walls. But, with nature deficit disorder – a feeling of being alienated from the great outdoors – on the up, it’s never been more important to step out your front door.
The benefits of being outside are multiple and time after time, scientific research has proven the positive impact it can have on our physical and emotional health. Whether it’s helping your memory, anxiety levels, sleep patterns or immune system, nature is an important tonic for our busy lives.
And so, to grounding. This practice, also known as earthing, has gained much attention in recent years and has become a buzzword of late. Essentially, it involves standing barefoot on the ground – or touching the natural environment with your hands, or other parts of your body – and proponents believe this allows you to benefit from the earth’s electrical charge and balance the charges in our own body. It may sound a bit woo-woo for some, but research published in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health claims that earthing can help reduce stress, aid sleep, reduce inflammation and more.
With this in mind, I recently took on the challenge of trying it myself for a week. I realise this could have been better timed – standing outside barefoot during the cold autumn months isn’t quite as appealing as doing so in the height of summer, after all – but nevertheless, the advantages of being outdoors remain regardless of the temperature.
To set me on the right path, I spoke to wellbeing expert Alan Dolan, a breathing coach and the founder of Breathguru (breathguru.com), who uses grounding as part of his practice and has worked with well-known names, including actress Naomi Harris and The Barefoot Doctor.
“We, as human, beings are designed to be in a natural environment and we have over the years – especially since the age of reason and science and technology – gradually removed ourselves from this,” he told me. “Now we live very much in synthetic environments and we’re no longer benefiting from a connection with the planet.”
He often sees clients suffering from stress and describes being outside as a time-tested antidote to feelings of anxiety. “Establishing this connection with the earth is a very simple act but it can help reduce a sense of overwhelm and improve sleep too,” he said. “Stress encourages you to live in your head, but grounding reconnects you with the earth and makes you feel connected to your body. I use breathwork to enhance the perception of grounding,” he added. “When we can connect our breath to our body and our body to the earth, we can see many benefits.”
Alan’s tips were clear – the best way to enjoy grounding is to simply get outside and walk around on a natural environment with bare feet – whether that’s grass, sand or stones. You can also sit or lie back on the ground and use your hands to touch nature around you – either through holding leaves or grass or by digging in the earth and gardening without gloves. Drink lots of water before you step outside, too. According to Alan, being hydrated affects your ability to conduct current.
The first time I ventured outside – full of anticipation (and a big glass of water) – it was a crisp autumn day. The sun kept disappearing behind the clouds, but when it shone without hindrance it warmed the skin with a distant memory of summer. I slipped off my shoes and walked across my garden, feeling fairly self-conscious. Was I supposed to be thinking certain thoughts, or doing something specific with my feet? But I remembered Alan’s advice – “Get out of your head, and redistribute your energy throughout your body” – and I moved my focus onto what I could feel.
The green, luscious grass had a dewy, damp feel which was accentuated by the spongy moss that had somehow taken root beneath the turf, and this springiness was at contrast with the scattering of crisp, dead leaves that lay atop it. I stepped across their crackly surfaces and felt them break beneath the soles of my feet.
Then I stopped next to an old plum tree. I rested my hand lightly against the scratchy, hard bark of the trunk and ran my fingers up and down its cracks, feeling the roughness of its texture. I wriggled my toes in the deliciously tickly grass and just stood still, leaning in to the moment. The wind rustled through the branches, and a lone bird sung a heartfelt tune somewhere behind me. I could feel the breeze on my face and the ground beneath my feet, and there was something in these sensations that seemed to soothe my soul.
I pressed my feet into the earth, and closed my eyes. As I breathed in and out deeply, I imagined roots spreading out from under my feet connecting my inner self with the ground below. The feeling of being grounded was so intense, it took me by surprise. Putting my shoes on after those few minutes felt like an inconvenience.
My toes were forced into the shape of my boots and they felt contained and encumbered, where they’d previously felt free and unrestrained. In the days following, I tried grounding every morning, taking pleasure in the nature around me and feeling the earth in a way I hadn’t seemed to do before. I did it less mindfully too. I hung out some washing on a blustery, bright day without first slipping on my shoes, I held spiky conker shells on the palm of my hand and dug my hands deep into the soil with my daughter as we explored the outside, and I shook out doormats while standing barefoot on our natural stone patio.
Yes, it was a little chilly at times, but I came to embrace the coolness of the ground and the freshness of the air as an energising remedy to the stuffiness of the indoors. I can’t say for sure if my week of grounding improved my sleep, or was the reason for my balanced emotions that week, but I do know that stepping outside in the fresh air was good for me. There’s something magical about connecting to the earth with your bare feet and hands, and it’s a reminder that the simple joy – and healing prowess – of the great outdoors should not be overlooked, even in autumn and winter.
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