10 Ways Walking Can Improve Your Mental Health

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, anxiety and fatigue.  Walking can lessen the risk of becoming depressed and has positive benefits for those in recovery.

When you go for a walk it’s not just your body that benefits – the way you think and feel changes too.

Research suggests taking a walk in a rural area is best for mental health, but an urban walk can help someone too, especially if that person is feeling sad or anxious.  

Here are ten ways you can ‘walk your way to wellness’.

1. Walking is child’s play

Walking is the most basic form of human transportation. Everyone knows how to walk. It is putting one foot in front of the other. An experienced walker was heard to say,

“To walk you need to start with two legs. The rest is optional.”

Walking has a low risk of injury as it is low impact and doesn’t need any special equipment or training. Walking can be done at any time of the day and conducted at your own pace.

In his book ‘A Philosophy of Walking’, French philosopher Frederic Gros says,

“You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood. So that walking, by unburdening us, prising us from the obsession of doing, puts us in touch with that childhood eternity once again. I mean that walking is so to speak, child’s play.”

2. Walking calms the mind

The single best way to still one’s mind is to put the body in motion. Taking a walk gives you a chance to take time out, think and reflect. Walking is an escape from the mundane and the boring. Walking delivers you from the constraints of work and the burden of routine.

Phones, Netflix binges, advertising, and traffic are some of the reasons our brains rarely have time to switch off and normalise. Walking affords an opportunity to detach from the things that overwhelm our minds. 

Walking provides a sensory distraction. You become aware of your surroundings: the shade of the eucalypts, the winding trail, the dry creek bed, the chortle of the magpie.

Walking puts a stop to the interior chatter, the constant self-evaluation, the comparisons and the judgments.

Walking produces a relaxing effect on the body. It is a change in rhythm, liberating the body from the restrictions of sedentary tasks. 

Walking is an effective way to deal with anxiety. It reduces the amount you think about your symptoms.

3. Walking improves mood

Research has shown that walking can improve your mood and restore your mental abilities. It will make you feel better.

When you walk, ‘feel good’ chemicals called endorphins are released in the brain, which has a positive impact on your mood.

The philosopher Seneca went on a lot of walks— to get where he needed to go, to clear his head, to get fresh air. He says,

“We should take wandering outdoor walks so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.”

4. Walking helps reduce stress

Walking is a simple, natural, and inexpensive way to combat stress. As Psychologist, Dr Lars Madsen says,

“Walking is a powerful, under-utilised stress buster.”

Dr Lars Madsen

Walking increases concentrations of brain chemicals that moderate our response to stress.

Walking also gives you time to get away from stressors. Getting out of the stressful environment, breathing the air, and feeling your body move is natural stress-relief.

Stress can be a factor in high blood pressure. Studies have shown that walking can lower your blood pressure and reduce your heart health risk. Even a 10-minute walk helps to reduce stress.

5. Walking increases energy levels

Spending time outdoors, especially in green spaces, is one of the fastest ways to improve your health and happiness. It reduces feelings of sluggishness and fatigue while encouraging physical activity.

It may seem counterintuitive, but walking can actually increase your energy levels. Moving around gets your blood flowing. Walking boosts cardiovascular health, which allows you to have greater endurance throughout the day.

6. Walking offers anonymity

By walking we escape from the idea of identity, the desire to be someone, to have a name and a history. The freedom experienced when walking is about not being anyone because the body that walks has no history. 

Gros talks about this idea of separation, of being apart. He says,

“Walk alone, across mountains or through forests. You are nobody to the hills or the thick boughs heavy with greenery. You are no longer a role, or a status, not even an individual, but a body, a body that feels sharp stones on the paths, the caress of long grass and the freshness of the wind.”

7. Walking is a spiritual discipline

In this noisy, distracting world, it is difficult to hear. Phones, Netflix binges, advertising and traffic are some of the reasons our brains rarely have time to switch off and normalise. Listening is an essential skill for healthy relationships, both with God and with other people.

In his book, ‘The Listening Life’, Adam McHugh talks about the benefits of long walks. He says,

“It is long because the monologue racing through our heads takes a while to talk itself out, and it is a walk because moving any faster would make the world blurry, and this is a practice which requires attention.”

Walking long distances brings interior peace. Our mind is stilled, without duress. Author Bill Bryson walked the Appalachian Trail. He says,

“You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in tranquil tedium, beyond the reach of exasperation.”

A long walk is of necessity a slow walk. Slow walking allows you to breathe, to go deeper. Rebecca Solnit says,

“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought or thoughtfulness.”

While walking, you hold yourself to account: you correct yourself, challenge yourself, assess yourself.

8. Walking encourages creativity

A 2014 Stanford Study found that creative thinking improves during walking. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says,

“All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Walking out of doors was the invariable accompaniment to Nietzsche’s writing. He says,

“We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.”

Nietzsche walked all day long, scribbling down here and there what the walking body – confronting sky, sea, glaciers – breathed into his thought.

As you walk a silence settles over you, opening the mind to infinite possibilities. Gros says,

“In the silence of a walk, when you end up losing the use of words because by then you are doing nothing but walk, in that silence you hear better.”

Gretchen Rubin, the author of ‘Happier at Home’, discovered that walking encourages new insights. He says,

“I avoid checking my email or talking on the phone when I’m walking someplace… I used to feel guilty for not using that time efficiently, but then I realized that many of my most important ideas have come to me during those periods.”

9. Walking alone

Walking alone allows you to choose a time and place that suits you. Importantly, it allows you to set your own pace. When walking it’s essential to find your own basic rhythm and maintain it. The right basic rhythm is the one that suits you so well that you don’t tire and can keep it up for extended periods of time.

Gros points out that you are never really alone. He says,

“It’s impossible to be alone when walking, with so many things under our gaze which are given to us through the inalienable grasp of contemplation…

Everything talks to you, greets you, demands your attention: trees, flowers, the colour of the roads.”

10. Walking with others

Walking with others promotes emotional wellbeing as it encourages interaction and social engagement. Walking with others reduces feelings of loneliness Regular activity with others builds a sense of belonging. These things play a key role in preventing depression and reducing anxiety.  Belonging to a walking group can be important for your physical, social and/or mental wellbeing.

In praise of walking

Let me conclude with the words of Dutch philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard. His timely advice is in a letter to his niece. He says,  

“Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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