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5 mental health benefits of walking: From stress relief to problem solving

5 mental health benefits of walking: From stress relief to problem solving
(Image credit: Getty)

Walking is a hugely enjoyable and accessible form of exercise for many people, and there are proven mental health benefits of walking too. Yes walking can help you loose weight and get fit, but daily walks outside can boost your mental wellness too.

The great news is, you don't have to walk the equivalent of a marathon each week to access the mental health benefits of walking. In fact, starting with a ten-minute walk a day, preferably outdoors in a pretty green space, will make a positive impact on your stress levels and sense of inner peace and happiness. 

If you're sheltering in place, hopping on one of the best treadmills for walking and running indoors will also help you tap into some of these benefits.

Walking for better mental health
As Stephen Buckley, Head of Information for the mental health charity MIND explains: “We all have mental health to look after as well as physical health, and the way we live our lives has a direct influence on them both. One in four of us will experience a mental health problem every year. 

"There are lots of small things we can change to improve or maintain good mental health and wellbeing without spending lots of money to do it.”

Remember, if you are experiencing any mental health issues, speak to your healthcare professional as soon as possible. “If the way you’re thinking or feeling is having an impact on your life or stopping you from doing things you normally would do, speak to a friend or family member you trust or go to your doctor, who can talk you through the support that’s available,” advises Buckley.

Health booster

Is walking good for you?

The link between exercise and better mental health has been well established in recent decades, yet less is known about the relationship between walking and mental health. That’s surprising, given how a small number of research studies have clearly demonstrated how walking benefits our mental health in a multitude of ways, from decreasing stress levels to boosting creativity. 

Walking for Health, an organization aimed at helping people to live a more active life, explains that while walking improves your physical health, the benefits don’t stop there: “A good walk can do wonders for your mental wellbeing. It improves self-perception and self-esteem, mood and sleep quality, and it reduces stress and anxiety.” 

It’s a view Buckley shares: “Our physical health and mental health are closely linked, and physical activity like walking can be very beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing too.”

Whether you’re wearing a business suit or active wear, rambling across open fields or breaking a sweat in your home gym, every step you take brings you closer to better mental health. In this feature, we’ve pulled together advice from a range of health and wellness experts to show how walking just several minutes a day can benefit your mental health, helping you feel calmer during these strange times.

De-stress

Mental health benefits of walking: walking reduces stress

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1. Walking reduces stress

We know that walking offers a range of physical benefits, from warding off obesity to reducing the risk of heart disease, but it turns out that your daily walk can reduce your stress levels too. Stephen Buckley explains: “Our physical health and mental health are closely linked, and physical activity like walking can be very beneficial for our mental health and wellbeing too. 

“Being active outdoors helps us switch off from everyday pressures, clear our heads and relieves stress by reducing levels of cortisol, ‘the stress hormone’, which has been linked to a range of mental health problems including depression and anxiety.”

If that’s not enough of a reason to lace up your trainers, consider the findings of a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine, which showed that walking through green spaces can put the brain into a meditative state. That’s great news if you love the idea of meditation yet struggle with the thought of having to sit cross-legged on your bedroom floor for 20 minutes a day.

Many of us are still in lockdown to various degrees, and for those of us who live in built-up cities, getting access to green spaces for a daily walk can be challenging. While walking indoors doesn’t have quite the same calming, meditative effect on the brain as walking in nature does, just 20 minutes of walking in any setting releases endorphins and lowers stress. So if you want to up your daily walking time come rain or shine, consider a treadmill for walking and running at home.

Ease anxiety

Mental health benefits of walking: walking reduces anxiety

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2. Walking helps to reduce anxiety

While the day to day challenges of modern living cause occasional bouts of anxiety and stress, anxiety disorders, an umbrella term for a range of mental health conditions that cause persistent and overwhelming feelings of dread, now affect millions of adults in the US. Just as stress and anxiety can release hormones that wreak havoc on your mental health, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that exercise releases feel-good hormones in your body. For some people, ‘One vigorous exercise session can help alleviate symptoms for hours, and a regular schedule may significantly reduce them over time.’

To track how active you are each day, we’d recommend looking at the best fitness trackers for counting steps and distance travelled, and to give you a picture of how much you’re moving each day. Setting yourself a manageable goal of walking for a few extra minutes each week will keep you motivated.

Psychologists have found that even a brief, ten-minute walk is as good at relieving anxiety as a 45-minute workout, thanks to walking’s ability to lower stress, a common trigger for anxiety according to Mental Health First Aid USA. Health expert, Sarah Wilson, who wrote about her own anxiety struggles in the best-selling book First We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety echoes the findings.

An avid walker, Wilson attributes walking with helping to shut off the amygdala, the primitive part of the brain that deals with anxiety. It's also the part that controls decision making, which is why making decisions when anxious seems impossible, and why making too many decisions at once can actually make us feel anxious. And while being in nature once again ramps up the benefits of a calmer mind, don’t add to anxious feelings by thinking you need to find the perfect green space. Just keep it simple and walk where you can, whether that’s outdoors (if you can maintain good social distancing) or inside your home.

Feel happier

Mental health benefits of walking: walking eases depression

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3. Walking may ease depression in some people

According to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Index, major depression affects over 9 million commercially insured Americans, and diagnoses have risen by 33% since 2013. The National Institute of Mental Health states that 17.3 million Americans have had at least one depressive episode, but that the real number is likely to be far higher.

While you may not have the luxury of being able to trade your desk job for one that sees you working outside more often, a 2019 Harvard Medical School study concluded that replacing one hour of sitting with walking each day may be an effective strategy for preventing depression.

While depression can also lead to disturbed sleep and lower energy levels, which sometimes lowers your motivation to exercise, Harvard professor Dr Michael Craig Miller suggests that as little as 5-minutes a day of gentle exercise such as walking can help ease it. In his research, Dr Miller says that walking not only helps prevent depression, but can also act as an effective ‘treatment’ for those who are already struggling with the condition. Though we would add that you should always consult your doctor about treatment for any mental health condition, and to discuss how you can use exercise and diet to potentially supplement it.

Think clearly

Mental health benefits of walking: walking reduces brain fog

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4. Walking reduces brain fog

You’re in the middle of an exam or about to give an important presentation at work when all of a sudden your mind goes blank. Sound familiar? Yes it could be some form of performance anxiety, buy you may also have experienced brain fog, which is another term for mental fatigue and during which your brain can feel like it’s stuffed with cotton candy. And not the fun kind you munch on at a carnival, but one that impairs your ability to make decisions, reduces concentration, and hits you with a fatigue that has you raiding the office vending machine at 3pm for a temporary sugar high.

Brain fog is a symptom of different health conditions including impaired sleep, nutritional deficiency, depression and other issues. Numerous studies have shown that people who exercise have greater volume in the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory. In a study called The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities, researchers found that increased activity levels are clearly associated with sharper mental acuity, a better memory and reduced brain fog.

So exactly how much walking do you need to do to lower brain fog? Harvard researchers suggest that walking at a moderate pace for one hour, twice a week, is enough to reduce brain fog and increase your ability to problem solve.

Get creative

Mental health benefits of walking: walking boosts creativity

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5. Walking boosts creativity

Charles Dickens, famous for his 7-15 mile daily walks in all weathers, attributed these restorative ramblings to increasing his prolific creativity. While trying to fit a seven-mile walk into your daily routine might be pushing it, Dickens was onto something when it came to linking walking with creativity.

If you’ve ever wondered why your best ideas seem to come to you while walking, a Stanford University Study might just have the answer. During a series of experiments, researchers found that when walking, a person generated twice as many creative responses as a person who was sitting down. That may explain why Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, was so fond of having his team join him for 'walking meetings'.

These positive results aren’t limited to walking in the great outdoors, either. Marily Oppezzo, co-author of the Stanford study, said: “I thought walking outside would blow everything out of the water, but walking on a treadmill in a small, boring room still had strong results, which surprised me.”

 While walking may not turn you into the next Dickens, it’s an enjoyable place to start to awaken your creative ability.

Find help

Mental health advice and support

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Where to find mental health advice and support:

The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on our collective mental health. In fact, 35% of people working from home say their mental health has worsened, and many experts believe this trend is set to continue. That’s why it’s important to speak to a health professional about any mental health issues you are experiencing, and to seek support from trusted family members or friends whom you feel comfortable chatting to about how you’re feeling. Having a good support network around you makes a big difference.

Demand for tele-therapy has spiked in America and across the globe since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Sanvello, a UnitedHealth Group company, has announced free premium access to its digital care delivery platform for stress and anxiety management care, while mental health app Thrive, endorsed by the NHS, is now available for free to UK residents. 

Some of the cost of therapy may be included in your health coverage, but if you don't have any at present, take a look at our guide to the best health insurance companies, as well as the best Medicare Part D plans for prescription drug costs.

If you’re working from home full time and are feeling the effects of it, take a look at our expert-led guide that helps you learn how to protect your mental health when working from home

Further mental health resources to access:

Walking for health tool kit

While it's true that, for most people with good mobility, you don't need any specialist equipment for walking, there are certain types of footwear, such as proper walking boots or walking shoes, that can make it more comfortable, and ensure your feet are well supported. 

There are other items you may want to consider for your daily walk too, such as an activity tracker, to see how far you've walked, and a water bottle to stay hydrated. If you're walking indoors, you'll be looking for a good treadmill, unless of course cycling is more your kind of indoor workout. In that case, take a look at our guide to the best exercise bikes.

Here are a few items worth considering for your walk, both indoors and out... 

Sources cited in this feature: US National Library of Medicine | Walking For Health | Anxiety and Depression Association of America | Mental Health First Aid USA | JAMA Psychiatry | Harvard Medical School | Harvard Health Publishing | Stanford University | Blue Cross Blue Shield | Brain Facts