Mental Health Benefits of Walking

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Exercise and mental health have been the focus of much research in recent years. One type of exercise, walking, has been the subject of multiple studies and has proven to have enhanced effects on mental health. Being a low-impact and low-cost activity, walking is accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels. Physical benefits of walking include the lowering of the risk of heart disease, stroke, and arthritis, as well as prevention of weight gain. But what’s more are the effects of walking on mental health. Many mental health professionals are calling it “Mental Aerobics”.

Mental health may not be on the minds of many during the course of their daily lives. It is often thought of as an insignificant issue that does not require much thought or insight. However, mental health is equally important to physical health and should be treated the same way. Mental health affects mood, cognitive abilities, and functioning on a day-to-day level. Mental health issues can also lead to the onset of unhealthy behaviors and even physical illness. It is estimated that six in ten people in the United States have dealt with a mental health problem of some sort. It is crucial to realize the impact that mental health can have on one’s entire life experience.

Importance of Mental Health

It is said that walking is an ideal way to improve or maintain your overall health. Just 30 minutes every day can increase cardiovascular fitness, strengthen bones, reduce excess body fat, and boost muscle power and endurance. It can also reduce your risk of developing conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers. And as we’ve learned from the previous paragraph, it can improve your mental health. How does mental health benefit from walking, you say? Well, there are various reasons as to how it does, and they are all backed up by extensive research.

Mental health is an umbrella term for our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It isn’t just the absence of mental health problems, but it’s also the ability to lead a balanced life. When we have good mental health, we are able to use our full potential, handle the daily stresses in life, work productively, and make a positive contribution to our community. A mentally healthy person can also handle relationships well, be able to adapt to changes, and cope with adversity. If there are areas on this scale that could be improved, then it is important to consider taking steps towards improving it.

Overview of Walking as an Activity

One of the first steps in understanding how walking can be of benefit to mental health is to take a closer look at the actual process of walking. When walking is used as a gentle form of exercise, it is often seen as a very relaxing activity that allows people to engage with their surroundings in a leisurely manner. The process of walking has been referred to as a ‘meditative movement’ because of its calming effect on the mind. This term can be derived from the fact that walking is a repetitive action that is conducted at a slow and steady pace, and it has been shown that the coordination of rhythmic movements with focused attention, such as in meditative action, can evoke a more relaxed mental state.

When the concept of walking as an activity is mentioned, there are a number of associations that are usually made. The most common form of association is in terms of physical benefits that can be gained from such an activity, such as the improvement of fitness and reduced risk of heart disease. However, what often goes unnoticed is the fact that walking can have a number of benefits to mental health, and in turn, these benefits can have a far-reaching effect on overall well-being. So it is that in considering the benefits of walking, it is important to take into account these mental rewards and consider it as an activity that can be of substantial benefit to the mind as well as the body.

Physical Benefits of Walking

Physical activity is as important as healthy eating in maintaining a healthy weight. Those looking to increase the amount of exercise they do and lose weight should aim to be active for a longer duration with lower intensity, such as walking. A study by the American Medical Association showed that a simple pedometer-driven walking program can improve the cardiovascular health of overweight persons. Participants were encouraged to increase their daily step count by 2000 steps each month until they achieved the target goal of 10,000 steps per day. The study showed that body weight and fatness, BMI, blood pressure, and overall well-being improved with an increase in daily steps.

Regular walking has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke, and some cancers (RCP, 2015). A study published in the British Medical Journal showed that walking at an average pace or faster can reduce the risk of cardiovascular events by 31%.

Physical activity can have particularly positive effects on health and well-being. The physical health benefits of walking are well documented and there are many good reasons to make walking part of your daily routine.

Improved Cardiovascular Health

It has been shown that 30 minutes of walking a day can help to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease as it’s an aerobic activity and it can also lower high blood pressure. After some time, the risk can even be reduced by up to 50%. Brisk walking for three and a half hours each week can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 40%. In another study, women who walked for three or more hours in a week were less likely to suffer a stroke than women who did not walk. This shows that walking has a direct effect in reducing the risk of cardiovascular impairments.

The heart is obviously a key organ of the body, responsible for pumping blood, the body’s lifeline, around 24/7. The faster the blood can pump to the body, the better the body will perform as it will be receiving more of the essential oxygen and nutrients it needs in order to function correctly. On the other hand, if blood vessels are narrowed, cholesterol can collect at the site of the narrowing and blood clots can form on the cholesterol, stopping blood flow. If a clot forms and blocks one of the arteries that supplies the heart with blood, a heart attack can occur. If blood clots prevent blood from reaching the brain, this can lead to a stroke. High blood pressure, strokes, and coronary heart disease can all be caused by an unhealthy lifestyle and can all be caused by poor blood circulation.

Weight Management and Increased Fitness

In terms of walking, a study published in “The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research” compared the effects of walking 10,000, 12,000, and 15,000 steps per day on calories burned in overweight, middle-aged men. The results showed that 2,000 additional daily steps were associated with a 200 kcal increase in energy expenditure and a decrease in the risk of obesity. An “overview of the impact of physical activity on weight management” suggested that regular moderate-intensity aerobic activity such as walking is an effective method of preventing weight gain or maintaining a healthy weight when combined with a caloric intake that matches the energy expended. This concurs with a meta-analysis and research on the “dose response to exercise” which concluded that the most successful method for weight loss is a high amount of low to moderate-intensity activity. This is good news for those who feel that in an attempt to kick-start an exercise regime, they may not be fit enough to begin with.

Regular physical activity is essential for weight regulation, and is most effective when combined with a dietary intake reduction. Weight gain is a result of a positive energy balance, when energy intake is higher than energy expenditure, and weight loss is experienced when the balance is reversed. According to the “2009 to 2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey,” more than 2 in 3 adults are considered to be overweight or obese. High weight status has implications for many aspects of health, and is a risk factor for many chronic conditions including heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The evidence of the detrimental effects of weight on mental health is inconclusive but in many cases, weight loss can improve mood via enhanced self-esteem and body image.

One of the most accessible lifestyle changes that can easily be built into daily life while reducing the need for an increase in dedicated “exercise” time, walking is encouraged by NICE in its guidance on promoting physical activity for general health improvement and chronic disease prevention in primary care. The suggestion is that taking the stairs instead of the lift, or a short walk on a regular basis will increase activity levels. In the US, the Department of Health and Human Services’ “2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans” suggest that when maintained at a certain level, activities of daily living such as gardening, using public transport, and walking the dog, can count towards the workout that is needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Having established a case that better mental health contributes to better physical health, this section proceeds to deliver the evidence that walking leads to improved fitness and weight management which in turn contributes to better physical health.

Enhanced Immune System

To begin with, the immune system was traditionally thought of as a fairly autonomous system that didn’t have many relationships with the other systems in the body. However, recent scientific data has shown that the immune system is not an isolated system, but is in actual fact heavily influenced by the conditions in various parts of the body. Blood cell counts, for example, rise during an infection – this is because the immune system requires more cells in order to effectively fight the infection. Now, because white blood cell count has been shown to be higher during and after exercise, this gives a strong indication that the immune system is being given a helping hand. Any cells and substances that the immune system needs to function move around the body in the blood, so the more an organ is supplied by blood, the better it is probably working. This is why it has been proposed that the immune system may be more efficient during and after exercise, because it is better supplied with blood. Stimulating the immune system has got to be included in the list of benefits of regular exercise on the basis of the evidence above. But there is still the question of whether the changes in immune function during exercise are beneficial in the long run. It has been traditionally thought that intense exercise suppresses the immune system, and there are two reasons for this. First, when athletes were studied after finishing a marathon, it was found that they had decreased white blood cell counts. Whether this is detrimental is not clear, because the immune system may temporarily reduce the production of cells in a specific part of the body in order to force them to move to an area where they are more urgently needed. Second, there have been many reports of athletes picking up infections in the period following heavy exercise. The reason for this is still unclear, but those two observed effects have led to the assumption that the immune system is in some way impaired by intense exercise. More recently, however, there is evidence that as well as long-term immune stimulating effects of regular moderate exercise, there may also be short-term effects which enhance immune function. If exercise can be seen as an attempt to create the best possible conditions in the body, then it can be likened to the situation where one tidies their house before visitors come round – in the same way that the person who has just exerted effort will want their body to recuperate in the best possible environment. So if the assumed long-term effects of exercise are true, and it is just a case of finding a type and intensity of exercise that has immune enhancing effects with minimal long-term costs, then it is a very encouraging prospect for the health conscious.

Psychological Benefits of Walking

Positive beliefs in one’s abilities to achieve a goal or an outcome, self-esteem, and confidence are positively related to the use of preventive health behaviour and are moderately related to overall health. Higher levels of self-esteem and confidence are related to more vigorous activity. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief he or she can succeed in a given task or behaviour. People who have high perceived self-efficacy in walking are more likely to continue walking in the future and to increase the amount of walking they do. High intensity vigorous exercisers have higher self-efficacy for being active at a high intensity than moderate intensity exercisers do. High intensity is also related to a positive mood. A positive mood is related to continued use of a health strategy. These findings illustrate that the relationships between psychological benefits, intensity of walking, and sustained activity are interrelated. Economic confidence is the perception one’s economic situation will be good over the next year, where regular walking is the most prevalent leisure time activity. The relationship between economic confidence and use of walking as well as the most prevalent type of walking deserves further study. This was a cross-sectional and longitudinal study. Prior to this study, the relationship between changes in psychological predictors and changes in physical activity motives in the context of a specific type of physical activity had not been studied.

Reduced Stress and Anxiety

The findings upon the stress and anxiety that link to taking walks much depends on the level of intensity. Stress can cause a wide variety of health problems, and walking can be effective in managing stress to minimize its impact. It is increasingly being recognized as an effective means of minimizing the impact of stress on modern life. All the evidence points towards short bursts of walking being effective in elevating mood and relaxation. When the mood elevates, usually so does the intensity of walking, which in turn is believed to lead to greater stress reductions. High-intensity walking may also reduce the damage caused by stress and anxiety. A study involving college students subjected to a stressful situation, measured using heart rate as a stress indicator, showed that the students who walked at high-intensity levels displayed a slower heart rate compared to the control group.

Boosted Mood and Happiness

Walking makes people happy. The effects of walking on mood have been well-documented in an analysis of more than 90 studies on walking and mental health. The research showed that the majority of the studies found that regular walking was associated with lower risk of developing depression. Another authoritative piece of research was a meta-analysis including 25 studies on the effects of walking on mood and was conducted in a laboratory setting. It found that in 12 of the studies there was a statistically significant effect favoring an improvement in mood. These beneficial effects were found in both healthy people and in those with an existing medical condition. A further review of 11 studies in people with depression concluded that as little as 30 minutes of walking a day was sufficient to improve their mood. Similar results were found in patients with medically diagnosed depression and those with self-assessed depressive symptoms. There are several reasons why walking can be an effective treatment for depression. Walking can protect against depression because it helps to protect against stressful life events. A survey of 18,000 people found that those who were active at least 2.5 hours a week were less likely to have a mood disorder 11 years later. Another study showed that the risk of developing depression over the next 5 years was 15% for active people compared with 22% for inactive people. High levels of physical fitness can also help to protect against the development of depressive symptoms in adolescents and in people with a high risk of developing depression. A study of 36,000 teenagers concluded that there was a strong inverse correlation between level of fitness and depressive symptoms in both boys and girls and a Finnish study of 2,591 middle-aged men found similar results. Finally, walking can improve the mood of people with depression as well as healthy people. It has been suggested that the effects of walking on depression are somewhat similar to the serotonergic effects of some pharmacological treatments and in a study in patients with cancer-related fatigue, a comparison of cognitive behavioral therapy with a supervised exercise program found that the exercise program resulted in a greater improvement in overall mood.

Improved Cognitive Function

The act of walking and the physical activity associated with it have been found to improve cognitive function. At the most basic level, walking requires some level of cognitive engagement as one must be alert and able to concentrate in order to avoid obstacles and stay on course. Walking outside on a path or trail can also increase cognitive benefits. Studies have shown that simply being in nature can lead to improvements in attention and working memory and with less effort than being in urban settings. Other work has shown that the calming nature of nature can actually foster improvements in cognitive function. And due to a combination of these factors, walking in a natural or nature-like setting has been associated with reductions in rumination, a maladaptive pattern of thought that is self-focused, repetitive, and negative, and in risk for developing mental illness, as well as decreases in anterior cingulate activity that is associated with the known to be the prelude to depressive relapse. With the increases in cognitive function are decreases in cognitive decline. Cognitive impairment resulting from a decrease in brain function is a concern in the elderly and a risk factor for developing dementia. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce cognitive impairment in older adults and as such has been an important factor in prevention of dementia. With walking in particular, studies have shown a correlation between total weekly physical activity and a reduced risk of cognitive impairment. An observational study of almost 6,000 men in Hawaii showed that walking more than 2 miles a day could lower the risk of dementia by half compared with those who walked less than 3/4 of a mile a day. And in an examination of over 16,000 women aged 70-81, walking 7 hours or more per week resulted in a significantly lesser rate of cognitive decline compared with walking 3 hours or less per week.

Increased Self-Esteem and Confidence

One study looked at how a ten-week aerobic and anaerobic exercise program affected the mental health of 141 participants in comparison to no exercise. Aerobic exercise consisted of an average of 30 minutes of walking, three times per week. This was compared to a no exercise control group, and a non-aerobic exercise group, which undertook stretching and toning exercises for the same amount of time. The study found that the aerobic and anaerobic exercise groups showed a significant decrease in both anxiety and depression in comparison to the non-exercising group. However, only the aerobic exercise group showed a marked increase in self-esteem. This indicates that while all exercise can be beneficial for mental health, the increase in aerobic activity, especially walking which is a low-intensity exercise, is particularly beneficial for self-esteem.

Further benefits for mental health have been seen where there is an increase in exercise levels. Outdoor walking groups have been set up in many medical practices, for people suffering from mental health problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to more serious psychiatric illnesses. A Walking for Health program was established to assist people with a low level of fitness to increase their activity, and help people with existing health problems. This program showed significant improvements in mental well-being.

Self-esteem is the value we place on ourselves, and it is believed to directly affect our mental health. People with low self-esteem often struggle with mental health issues, and people who suffer from mental health issues often have low self-esteem. The connections between self-esteem and mental health indicate that ways of improving self-esteem could be beneficial for mental health.

Social Benefits of Walking

Greater Manchester is trying to stimulate a sense of community by producing a map which shows all the local walking routes and groups in the area. Any walking group can register to appear on the map and people can print off a walking route nearby. By seeing how much is already going on and by realizing the proximity of local walking routes, villagers and small towns will be able to make contact with like-minded people in their area.

Having contact with other people—whether it’s a friendly greeting from a neighbor or a chat with a friend—can bring significant benefits for our mental wellbeing. Different forms of communication can enhance our mental outlook; for example, sharing ideas and feelings in depth with someone else. When we confide in a friend or relative and they are responsive, it can be uplifting. Feeling connected to others and feeling valued by them is a fundamental psychological need which contributes to a sense of wellbeing.

A sense of belonging and community

“I look for a stretch of road without a lot of traffic and I put on music. Some of my richest thinking has come from these walks.”

She says that when she’s working on a new show, she goes on “long white-line walks”.

Twyla Tharp, the famous dancer and choreographer, is in her mid-sixties and still working. She dances for two hours a day and then walks five to ten miles.

This aspect of walking is almost too obvious to mention, but often underestimated. Walking is an activity which can be shared with others. It provides an opportunity to meet and to talk in an uninterrupted way, away from phones and email. Because walking increases our fitness, it also enables us to do things with others.

Opportunities for Social Interaction

Walking facilitates various types of social interaction, from a casual chat with a friend to a chance meeting with a stranger. Social interaction while walking has been shown to foster a heightened sense of well-being and connectedness. Walking in groups provides an opportunity to connect with others, share feelings and ideas, and be with people in a supportive, accepting environment. A study of a walking group for women with breast cancer found that the social support gained was as important as the physical activity. Walking also provides increased opportunity for casual social interaction. In an era where both time and genuine human connection are in short supply, taking a few extra minutes to smile or exchange a few words with people as one walks can lead to a greater sense of belonging in one’s community. High rates of social interaction have been noted among people walking in their own neighborhoods, but lower rates in more deprived areas, suggesting that walking can help build social capital and combat community-level social exclusion. Social and community events such as “pedometer walks” and “walking football” are emerging ways to promote walking and social interaction in more inclusive ways.

Sense of Belonging and Community

For those who struggle with any kind of mental health disorder, the notion of feeling a sense of belonging can seem foreign and hard to attain. It is common for those affected to feel as if they are ‘not good enough’ or ‘don’t fit in’ and this can further bring about stress, anxiety, and depression. A study in the UK found that group walks in nature can be particularly good for our mental health and leave us feeling less stressed and more in touch with a sense of belonging and improved mental wellbeing. Another study conducted in the Netherlands found that those who participated in a walking group showed a significant increase in their feelings of ‘unity’ with others, something which is strongly correlated with greater feelings of social integration and improved mental wellbeing. Regular walking with a group also helps to connect people with a similar interest, something other than a mental health issue, to develop friendships and a strong support network. These are all significant factors with regards to improved mental wellbeing and in preventing relapse to more severe mental health disorders. Walking in natural environments can bring about feelings of community and belonging in an additional way. A US-based study on the connection between nature and mental health interviewed a man who described his experiences with mental illness and the benefits of walking in nature on his wellbeing. He stated “in nature I feel a part of something. I feel positive and more engaged with life…and with other people. I want to be part of the world” (Bushra et al., 2016). This shows a significant change to his usual states of mind which are often negative, self-focused, and withdrawn from the community. A connection to nature has shown to provide a more meaningful and fulfilling life and is strongly related to notions of belonging and identity (Townsend and Weerasuriya, 2010). It can also provide a setting for social interaction and help to build relationships, an important factor preventing isolation and depression.

Reduced Feelings of Isolation

Increased feelings of isolation are common in individuals enduring mental health illnesses. They often feel pushed away or as though they are incapable of relating to others. These feelings not only encourage emotional discomfort, but they can also contribute to a deepening of mental illness. Cognitive-behavioral therapist Kaori Ito and her colleagues at Tokyo’s Meiji Gakuin University recently studied the effects of walking around a city and a park on 71 adults. Eighty-five percent of the adults reported a decrease in their anxiety after walking through the park—the other 15 percent reported no increase or decrease in anxiety. Conversely, sixty percent reported a decrease in their anxiety after walking around the city, and forty percent reported an increase in anxiety. An increase in anxiety can often lead to an increase in isolation, while a decrease in anxiety can lead to a decrease in isolation. This study is significant in that it shows walking not just as a method for anxiety reduction, but as a method for anxiety reduction that can prevent further increases in anxiety and isolation. A study conducted to examine the relationship between physical activity and depression asked 51,603 Norwegian adults how often they were active and what type of activity they participated in. They were then asked a series of questions to determine the presence of depression. The study found that there was a strong association between low activity or inactivity and depression. The associations were strongest for activity involving low or moderate intensity, and weakest for activity involving high intensity. Low intensity can be easily achieved through walking. As walking is a low intensity type of exercise, it is more accessible and beneficial to depressed individuals than other more physically taxing activities. The same study asked depressed individuals who were involved in health-related physical activity, including walking, after a twelve-month period how their mood was. Half of the individuals who increased their activity reported relief from depressive symptoms, while 20% of the individuals who maintained their activity reported relief. These results suggest that the duration of exercise can have an effect on the duration of depressive episodes. If already an effective treatment, increasing the duration of walking could increase its benefit.