While it is well-known that consistent exercise can greatly increase one’s physical well-being, did you know that even so simple a task as walking can improve your mental health? Several scientific studies agree that by incorporating regular strolls into your daily routine, you can improve your sense of confidence, optimism, and overall sense of well-being, especially while walking in parks or other natural environments. In just half an hour each day, you too can find yourself walking to a healthier, happier future!
Walking: An Exercise For Everyone
Before we address the specific mental health benefits of walking, it is worth noting that most exercise is proven to have positive influence on people’s self-esteem and overall well-being. Mind, a UK organization dedicated to providing advice and support and empowering those experiencing mental health problems, lists several mental health benefits to exercise, including its ability to reduce anxiety and stress, instill a greater sense of calm, increase self-esteem, and create happier moods. This remains just as true for walking as for other, more strenuous forms of exertion!
Walking is an accessible form of exercise for most people and can be more easily maintained for longer periods of time than, for example, running. It is even possible to achieve the same physical effects through walking as through running. According to certified exercise physiologist John Ford: “walking is a really good form of exercise and can help you reach your fitness and weight-loss goals.”
In short, don’t let people shame you into thinking walking is an inferior or less-effective exercise. With the right routine, walking can be just as beneficial for your physical and mental health – if not more so – as running.
Step Up Your Self-Esteem!
According to the study of one Southern California professor of psychology, the number of steps you take can directly affect your mood! Over a 20 period, 37 participants were asked to wear pedometers and, at the end of each day, answer questionnaires designed to assess their happiness, self-esteem, overall perspective, and depression. At the end of each assessment, they recorded the number of steps recorded on the pedometer. According to Robert Thayer, the study’s lead professor, there was a noticeable and strong correlation between participant’s step counts and their reported mood and energy level. There don’t seem to be any upper thresholds here, so the benefits are theoretically limitless (though you certainly wouldn’t want to walk yourself to exhaustion)!
The study also found that people who walked more also ate more nutritiously, suggesting that the ramifications of walking may be even more far-reaching than they first appear. They found that their cravings for unhealthy foods were diminished, even though they were not consciously trying to improve their diets. Not only does walking drastically improve your metabolism, but it seems to also improve your self-discipline and restraint!
Treat Depression One Step At A Time!
While the culture at large is slow to recognize the extent of depression’s effects, the symptoms truly influence all aspects of a person’s life. Rising feelings of insecurity combined with overwhelming anxiety and a fatigued sense of self-worth quickly lead to a loss of motivation that makes even the simplest tasks seem daunting. If this sounds familiar, according to a 2015 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10% of the United States’ population suffers from depression. The need for better mental health care and preventive resources has never been more present.
Fortunately, groundbreaking scientific research indicates that walking can help! Simply dedicating 200 minutes each week to walking improved the quality of life for Australian women living with depression. In the course of a three year study, doctors noted the women who maintained their exercise regimen had more energy, socialized more, and began to feel more confident.
Getting Outside Yourself
Studies suggest that getting outside of your house or office space and into a green, natural landscape can also help you leave behind anxieties and tendencies to brood! Statistically, city dwellers are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression than people in suburban or rural areas and an increasing body of research suggests these facts may be linked. For example, studies found that residents of cities with little access to green environments are more susceptible to psychological illnesses while those who live visit green, natural spaces return with lower stress hormones.
Desiring to learn more about these correlations, Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, created his own experiment to study how environment affects one’s mood. Bratman created an experiment that measured subjects’ tendency to brood through carefully prepared questionnaires and studying the level of blood flow in the subgenual prefrontal cortex – an area where high activity is linked with recursive, unproductive, and ultimately unhealthy thinking.
Bratman administered these tests before and after his 38 subjects went for 90 minutes walks, half the group in a calm and verdant part of the Stanford campus, the other half along the side of a loud, multi-lane highway. The volunteers’ answers on the questionnaires revealed that those who walked through the park were less stressed than before while the brain scans showed less blood flow in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, representing minds more at peace. The other volunteers on the other hand – those who walked along the busy highway – remained stressed.
The best way to start a new routine is to begin right away. Grab some comfortable walking shoes and loose-fitting clothes, find a suitable path near you – preferably one surrounded by trees or leafy shrubs and green and growing grass – and let your feet carry you where they will. Walk as far or as long as you can and then do it again tomorrow and the day after that. Right away you should notice slight boosts to your mood at the end of each walk, little moments of levity or happiness that will grow longer with renewed familiarity. Keep going and you’ll be well on your way to happier days!