Mental health has been declared as a pandemic. Statistics show that 1 in 20 US adults suffer from some form of mental health. Worldwide, it is estimated that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will experience major depression in their lives.
A recent survey in the UK indicates some people are taking decisive action to fend off mental health — or to manage existing conditions. Of the 2,200 people surveyed, 54% said they have started walking more often.
Walking, together with other moderate-intensity activities release ‘feel-good’ hormones in the brain called endorphins. These little fellas are mood enhancers, and being in a good mood has a knock-on effect in how you experience other parts of your life.
When you’re in a good mood, your energy is higher, and you’re more magnetic, infectious and fun to be around. A positive, fun-loving attitude usually rubs off on other people and a good time is had by all.
It, therefore makes sense to go walking more often. Yet the survey, commissioned by not-for-profit fitness industry organisation ukactive, also discovered that almost 75% of the participants were not aware of how many minutes of exercise you should engage in each week.
And if you don’t know either, the recommended dose is 150 minutes a week.
Walking is a simple, low-lever gateway to help improve your mental health. Here’s why.
The Mental Health Benefits of Walking
A growing body of scientific studies show that walking has a profound and positive impact on mental health. Some key aspects of the relationship between improved mental health and walking are listed below.
Chronic stress is well known to have a detrimental effect on mental health. Moreover, many of the strategies people adopt to overcome stress are also damaging. Coping mechanism includes alcohol. Smoking, drugs and fast food.
Walking, especially in natural settings like parks or forests, has been shown to reduce stress levels. The combination of physical activity, exposure to nature, and the rhythmic motion of walking can help lower stress hormones like cortisol.
As noted above, walking releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. But more than that, endorphins help to relieve pain and keep you in a calm state of mind.
Because healthy levels of endorphins play a critical role in our daily experience of life, regular walking can lead to a more positive outlook and help combat feelings of anxiety and depression.
Low self-esteem is linked with a high number of cases of mental illness, particularly anxiety and depression — two of the most prevalent forms of mental illness people struggle with today.
Engaging in physical activity like walking can improve self-esteem and self-confidence. Achieving personal fitness goals and getting outdoors can boost one’s sense of accomplishment.
Walking To Get Better Sleep
It irks me that mental health experts say good sleep is essential for healing mental health. That’s not good advice for people who suffer from insomnia brought on by anxiety, depression, chronic worry and panic attacks.
However, exercise does help you to feel more fatigued and less stressed which can help you get to sleep. A good night’s sleep enables you to function better the following day, which gives you a foundation to improve your mental health. But better sleep is not good advice. Walking to get better sleep is.
Increased Brain Function
To prove my last point, scientific studies show there is a positive correlation between good mental health and strong cognitive function and poor mental health in people with poor cognitive function. You brain doesn’t work well when you have not slept well.
Walking enhances cognitive function and can improve creativity and problem-solving skills. It’s a great way to clear the mind and enhance mental clarity.
Research shows that positive social relationships support improved mental health outcomes. Essentially, humans need to be around like-minded people who support your emotional well-being and self-esteem.
Walking with others or participating in group walking activities can promote social interaction and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. If you’re feeling lonely and need encouragement to get out more, join a local walking club.
Mindfulness and Relaxation
Mindfulness is the latest craze to help people take control of their lives. Proponents claim that meditation has multiple mental health benefits. I agree, but meditation is not reserved for sitting in a lotus position observing thoughts.
Mindfulness actually means immersing yourself in your surroundings by becoming consciously aware of what is happening around you. Far too often, we live in our heads and thinking, including observing our thoughts, promotes mental health.
When you focus your attention on the external world, your conscious awareness shifts from your inner mumblings to what is happening around you. Walking gives you the opportunity to pay attention to the sights, sounds, and sensations along the trail.
Although ruminating is not a mental health issue of its own, it is a symptom that signposts the presence of an underlying condition. Moreover, ruminating doesn’t help mental health but is probably making it worse.
When we ruminate, we tend to focus on negative topics and feelings. As a result, we keep ourselves stuck in problems and, quite often, are trying to find excuses or strategies we can use to protect our self-importance.
As noted above, walking with mindfulness distracts the mind from overthinking and removes the attention you pay to yourself. This can help to reduce the amount of rumination and break negative thought patterns that contribute to poor mental health.
Sense of Achievement
Although walking is essentially a low-entry barrier, you can up your game by setting yourself brisk walking goals, distance or weight loss goals etc. Doing so can give you a sense of achievement which supports self-esteem and self-confidence.
Setting measurable walking goals and achieving them, whether it’s reaching a daily step count or completing a long hike, has positive effects on how you view yourself.
And the benefits of walking on mental health are not limited to intense or long walks. Even short, leisurely walks can offer significant mental health benefits. The key is to find a walking routine that fits your lifestyle and preferences and to make it a regular part of your daily or weekly activities.