WALKING is one of the simplest forms of physical exercise there is — but for TV presenter Julia Bradbury, it’s so much more than that.
“It improves sleep, lowers anxiety, boosts brain power and even lengthens life,” she wrote in the Mail recently. “I used it to help me through the breast cancer that upended my life three years ago, as well as IVF and miscarriages, grief and mental health issues.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Julia should take pride in being an enthusiastic evangelist for nature. Born in Dublin, she grew up in Sheffield and was introduced to walking and the power of the great outdoors by her father, Michael.
He would take her roaming across the Peak District, igniting a lifelong passion that has underpinned her career in television and more recently has grown into something of an obsession with the healing power of walking to strengthen the body and soothe the mind.
After starting her on-screen career as a showbusiness reporter for breakfast TV in Los Angeles, she came home to help launch Channel 5 in the UK and has fronted shows like Top Gear and Watchdog.
But it was as a member of the Countryfile presenting team with Matt Baker that she became nationally recognised when the relaunched series became a ratings hit, before she moved on to host a succession of shows about walking, from Cornwall and Devon to the Lake District and beyond.
But while her love of walking has taken her to the furthest corners of the world over the past three decades, she says she still cherishes her little London garden and the old plane tree outside her bathroom window.
“You don’t need big landscapes or seat-of-the-pants travel adventures to benefit from ‘green therapy’,” she says.
And it’s healthy living and the virtues of nature therapy which have featured a lot in her thoughts in recent years, when she has spoken of her struggle to overcome infertility and failed IVF treatments, and of her rollercoaster emotions faced with her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer.
She recalls how hiking in Iceland, faced with a huge vista of mountains, icy streams and steaming hillsides, made her IVF problems seem more manageable and reflects that you don’t need such dramatic views to overcome anxious thoughts: “A single tree, the sound of birdsong, a scented rose — all of these can calm us,” she says.
It may take as little as half an hour of walking in nature for our stress hormones to start dropping, and every step can contribute to our feeling of wellbeing if we take the time to savour the feel of the ground beneath our feet, the rustle of the leaves and fragrance of the plants around us.
Part memoir and part self-help guide, her latest book, Walk Yourself Happy, incorporates science-backed research, practical tips and her own experiences to examine how nature can soothe anxiety and stress, helping us to cope with grief, illness and the pressures of everyday life.
Can a mountain or tree keep us company in times of loss? The science certainly suggests that building nature into our everyday lives can help us eat, sleep and function better, and walking is one of the easiest and quickest ways for most of us to immerse ourselves in the natural world.
Past generations may have taken such bonds for granted, but as Chris Packham reminded us in Back To Nature, those connections have unravelled in parallel with our technological progress in the industrial and social revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“We live in sterile modern homes, where we can’t see, hear, taste or touch it, and we drive through it in our air-conditioned cars, disconnected from it,” wrote Packham.
Julia picks up the theme in her book too, encouraging us to rekindle those ancient bonds with nature that have been all but extinguished by modern living, which in turn can encourage closer camaraderie with friends and more intimate knowledge and awareness of self.
“No matter what challenges you face, I promise there is a walk to lift your mood, even if it’s just around your local park,” she says.
It was three years after her Iceland trip that she conceived her son naturally at the age of 41, but there was still a miscarriage and four years of IVF treatment to undergo before her twin daughters arrived.
Flash forward to 2021 and a shock breast cancer diagnosis posed another emotional and physical challenge, suffusing Julia in a sudden flush of grief, not least for “that naive belief that I was invincible and everything would always be all right”.
She thought of her three young children and her eyes filled with tears. Would she live to see them grow up? And later, after her mastectomy, there was a different trauma to cope with, faced with the physical and emotional damage of the angry scarring.
But she is unequivocal about the long-term impact of the experience.
“Cancer saved my life,” she writes. “That may seem a strange thing to say, but it opened my eyes to what I was doing to myself. Before diagnosis, everything I did was at breakneck speed. I wanted it all, and pushed myself emotionally and physically to reach impossible goals.”
It’s a problem most of us can relate to, where the days, weeks and months slip by and we are distracted by false priorities.
Her book chronicles her own journey of recovery but also explores the psychological and scientific reasons for our encounters with nature being of such enormous benefit: why the sound of birdsong, feel of morning sunshine on our faces and smell of the earth can be so powerfully curative and uplifting.
Nature offers a perfect model of resilience and regeneration, she points out, however hostile the environment.
“What the past couple of years have taught me is that since you are a finite person in a world with almost infinite choices and possibilities, you’d be wise to prioritise those choices that serve your health and make you happy. For me that is walking in nature.”
Walk Yourself Happy takes up Julia’s personal journey but opens out to examine
the elemental link between our own physical and mental health and the natural world.
It’s more than a decade since she and her sister Gina co-founded an outdoors website designed to share free resources about some of the best walking routes in the UK, including links to many of Julia’s TV programmes.
Nowadays the importance of spreading the word about the health benefits of nature has become not just an integral part of her own life but a true “passion project”.
Since then the pair have worked with disabled ambassador Debbie North, a keen hill walker before she became a wheelchair user, to help create a network of wheel-friendly walks for people with poor or no mobility, and launched a charitable scheme, The Outdoor Guide Foundation, which raises funds to allow schools to get pupils outdoors in all weathers.
Once recovered from her mastectomy, Julia recalls taking a hike up Mam Tor in the Peak District with her whole family.
“It’s where I started walking as a child, and one of the most special places in the world to me,” she recalls.
Standing at the top, holding hands in the sunshine and shouting down into the valley, she found tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Climbing Mam Tor with the people I love most in the world felt like a profound restatement of faith in my future,” she says. “I needed to do it, not just to give thanks, but to overwrite the despair and desolation that cancer had brought into my life.”
Walk Yourself Happy by Julia Bradbury is published by Piatkus at £20.