This morning, I nearly dozed off in a muddy puddle.
Oh, I was fine. It was cold, but I was wrapped up in lots of layers, warm as toast. (Is there a more British phrase? I doubt it.)
I lay there comfortably, one knee blathered in mud, my face shoved in a clump of grass. In a way it’s now difficult to articulate, I was perfectly happy. It was fun – the same way sitting on the floor is sometimes fun, even if there’s a good chair available.
It was peaceful down here. Yes – I was at peace.
No reason to move just yet. Nope.
I listened to the birds, I enjoyed the feeling of the wan winter sun on my back…
Life felt good. I was enjoying the moment!
And then I shook myself.
No, Mike – you’re lying in a puddle in a field in Yorkshire in January like the silliest of silly buggers. Get up, man. What on earth are you doing? Just imagine if someone found you like this. Imagine explaining it! You’d have to make something up. “Oh hi! I’m testing out the thermal properties of these walking trousers. It’s a review for Outside Magazine.”
No. Stop. Really. Just get up.
In fact, I was running a test of sorts. I deliberately stayed up all night, watching Netflix until 5am (Hannibal – guaranteed to keep you awake) so I could go for a walk on just two hours of sleep, and write about the effect it had on my senses and my mood.
And I only really found out when I stepped in a muddy tractor rut and fell over.
Long-term sleep deprivation is astonishingly bad for your health. It’s a menace. If chronic sleep debt was a drug, it’d be banned, and you’d be arrested for carrying it.
If you incur a sleep debt, your body starts to fall apart at a terrifying rate. Worse, most people don’t understand what “sleep debt” actually means. If you get 3 hours of sleep every night for five weekdays and sleep in for a delicious 10 hours on Saturday, you are not “caught up”. You’ve just made yourself unaware of those other 10 hours of sleep you’re behind with. Those missing hours will continue to attack you, gnawing great holes in you. You’re walking around with an invisible sucking gunshot wound, and most of your health will leak right out of it.
Unfortunately, chronic sleep debt is everyone’s problem these days.
But in the short term, it’s sometimes a necessary evil – especially for walkers. If you only have the weekend free, and you’re getting up at 2am on Saturday so you can hit the hills at sunrise, of course you’re going to miss sleep. You might as well complain that swimming makes you wet. So you grit your teeth, enjoy the weird, floaty feeling of not having had enough sleep (demonstrably worse than the effects of alcohol), you make sure you’re safe, and you try to avoid doing anything daft that day.
Like, say, falling over and nearly dozing off in a muddy puddle. That kind of daft.
I said “necessary evil” – and that’s what I’ve always believed. Sleep deprivation is manageable, but there are no real benefits to doing it (unless you’re after a legal, safe version of taking mind-altering drugs, I guess).
Sleep deprivation is a quick and efficient way to treat depression. It works 60 to 70 percent of the time—far better than existing drugs—but the mood boost usually lasts only until the patient falls asleep.
Doctors have been pushing the health benefits of the great outdoors for decades, but it’s usually something to do with the body, not the mind. The effects of nature on the brain are starting to come to light – this is a great overview – but depression? That’s a new one for me – even if it does make sense. For years, whenever I’ve been hit with Black Dog (my family’s name for depressive moods), I’ve felt compelled to walk it off, and when I did so, I felt better. No bad mood could survive a four-hour trek at a brisk pace.
Well, it turns out there’s science. And the science is exciting.
So if life is dragging your mood to the floor, deliberately get too little sleep, put your boots on and go for a walk.
If emotional trauma hits, get too little sleep, put your boots on and go for a walk.
If you’re at your wit’s end and everything feels impossible and pointless, get up at the crack of dawn, stumble into your boots, grab a water bottle, and walk and walk until the mud is thick around your ankles and the breath is whooshing in and out of you, and your cheeks are pink and your knees are wobbly. Doesn’t matter where you go. It only matters that you go.
Oh, and if you do fall over along the way – take a moment and enjoy it.
(Just don’t tell anyone. They’ll think you’re a bit weird.)
Every weekday this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?
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PREVIOUSLY: A Mile A Day #4 – Seeing From Scratch