Walking and mental health: understanding the benefits

Walking doesn’t just boost your physical health – it also benefits your mental health, too. Discover how to turn a simple stroll into a feel-good pastime this National Walking Month....


walking and mental health how does walking help mental health

We’re all aware of how good walking is for toning your muscles and boosting your heart health – but there’s something intangible that walking does to help your mood and mental health, too – but how does it work? As you’ll know if you’ve ever headed outside with a niggling question in your mind, there’s nothing that eases a frazzled brain quite like putting one foot in front of the other.

How does walking help our mental health?

‘Our bodies are designed to move, and when we don’t do that, pent-up energy gets stuck inside and creates more stress,’ says Jonathan Hoban, pioneer of walking therapy and author of Walk With Your Wolf: Reconnect with your Intuition, Confidence and Power (£14.99).

‘We have a fundamental, primal need to walk – at least 40 minutes per day if possible. Time to walk helps re-energise your brain, calm adrenaline levels and create a sense of clarity. That’s why when you return from a walk, you normally have the answer to an issue or any problems you may have been pondering about.’

walking and mental health how does walking help mental health
Our bodies are designed to move, and when we don’t do that, pent up energy gets stuck inside and creates more stress.

Professional Therapist Jonathan, who made walking part of his own daily routine years ago, now helps people decompress from everyday life, simply through walking, whilst in the process reducing depression, anger, high blood pressure, anxiety and even addiction problems.

‘Sometimes it’s one of the hardest things for my clients to do, but I make them schedule regular break alerts into their digital calendar,’ says Jonathan.

‘I recommend an hour of walking throughout the day – ideally a minimum of two 30-minute walks – to get your brain working at its best. This amount of time helps reduce your cortisol levels and calm down the adrenal glands. Too much of the stress hormone cortisol can cause increased anxiety and adrenal fatigue.’

So, put a note in your diary to go for a walk with a difference this National Walking Month. Try some of Jonathan’s tips for releasing stress, resolving problems and setting your creative mind free, to discover the incredible mental health benefits of walking…

13 tips to reap the mental health benefits of walking

walking and mental health how does walking help mental health
Walking near water – whether lakes, rivers, ponds or the sea – increases our wellbeing even further.

Go walking in nature or near a body of water

Walking provides a way to connect with the primal, animal nature that lies dormant inside you, according to Jonathan, who uses the metaphor of an ‘inner wolf’ to represent his own wild nature – but how does this help our mental health?

‘We have disconnected from our sense of intuition, and we tend to try to think our way out of problems rather than feel our way out,’ he says. ‘Walking helps you feel grounded in nature, which helps you remember you’re a primal being. It creates a feeling of connection to the world.’

Science certainly backs this up. Walking somewhere green, even if it’s just the local park, for five minutes helps improve your sense of wellbeing and lower your risk of mental illness. This was discovered in an analysis of 1,252 people from different backgrounds across the UK.

For even greater benefits, just add water; natural landscapes combining green and blue – whether lakes, rivers, ponds or the sea – increase wellbeing even further.

There’s a scientific reason for our love of walking near water: ‘It dates back thousands of years and is hardwired into our DNA,’ explains Annabel Streets, author of 52 Ways to Walk.

‘Water equals survival. When our ancestors heard the sound of water, it signified life and somewhere that would provide the food and drink needed to survive. Things maybe different now, in that we don’t have to hunt for our food, and water flows freely into our homes, but these innate feelings are still within us.‘

‘Another reason walking near water is beneficial is because light is reflected off the water’s surface, you’re exposed to twice the level of light when walking close by. When light falls on our skin, it creates the hormone serotonin – known as our feel good or happy hormone – so it stands to reason the more light we see, the happier we feel,’ Streets adds.

How does walking in the rain help your mental health?

‘We’ve already touched on the benefits of walking close to water, but there’s something extra special about being near to crashing, fast-flowing water, such as waterfalls or waves,’ says Streets. ‘A recent Austrian study, which took a group of stressed care workers and split them into groups, found that the workers who enjoyed regular walks near waterfalls had better overall health, immunity and mood compared to those who hadn’t been exposed to this kind of setting.

‘This sense of wellness is attributed to the negative ions, which are generated as air molecules break apart from fast-moving water, such as rivers, sea waves and even fountains. These negative ions actually change the air we breathe and increase the flow of oxygen to our brains, making us feel more alert and energised.

‘This is the reason why people often talk of the benefits of sea air. And if you can’t find a local waterfall, never fear, because rainfall – in plentiful supply here in the UK – can have the same effect,’ Streets adds. ‘So, don’t be afraid to don your raincoat and wellies this season and embrace a summer downpour – it’s proven to lift your mood!’

Try the tiptoe walking technique to feel uplifted

‘It’s not always possible for us to escape our towns or cities – we might live in an urban location or spend a lot of time working in a city– but it doesn’t mean we can’t still find joy walking around these areas,’ says Streets.

‘It may seem a little wacky, but walking on the balls of your feet – a little like walking on tiptoes – can really put a spring in our step in more ways than one. A recent study found that when we walk with more bounce, we feel naturally uplifted in our demeanour.

‘The bounce can be made subtler for those who feel a little self-conscious springing around the city streets. Simply exaggerate the transition from heel to toe as you walk. Then, add a little lift as you come up onto the balls of your feet.

‘This technique is not advised for long distances. However, it makes a perfect start to your day while walking to the office or as a little lunchtime interlude away from your desk,’ Streets adds. ‘If you’re feeling very brave, skipping around your local park can really uplift your mood. It depends how daring you feel, though!’

Power walk to dispel anger

Anger is a natural emotion. However, if it’s not effectively dealt with and dissipated, it can cause blocks in your body. This exercise is a great way to remove pent-up anger from your system: ‘Warm up with a gentle five-minute walk. Then, think about why you’re angry and start walking as fast as you can,’ says Jonathan.

‘Walk with purpose – swinging your arms fast and strong for up to four minutes if you can. Then taper down. Aim for at least two minutes of slow walking, then speed up for two, then one slow; one fast. When you’re done, note your anger levels.

‘Walking quickly, pumping your arms up and down with the intention of driving out negative energy helps release the stress you’d otherwise internalise. This way, your body is able to physically express itself as an alternative to vocally expressing that anger,’ Jonathan explains.

The reason you feel so good after a walk could also be to do with the impact of your feet hitting the ground. Researchers in New Mexico found the rhythmic motion helps boost the blood supply to your brain.

All the apps and notifications on our phones lead to retinal overstimulation, as your brain can only process so much.

Turn off your tech when walking

If you’re one for walking and talking or listening to things on your phone, Jonathan advises occasional time off from your device. ‘Having your phone open and to hand is the mental equivalent of simultaneously engaging with an actual diary, camera, TV, radio and more.

‘All the apps and notifications lead to retinal overstimulation, as your brain can only process so much,’ says Jonathan. ‘Taking adequate walking breaks helps you manage your stress levels. Plus, turning off technology for the duration means you’re creating a natural boundary in your day.’

‘In today’s modern world, it’s no surprise to hear that most of us spend our days focused on a screen,’ says Streets. ‘We’ve become quite accustomed to it, but it’s actually very stressful for our bodies, particularly our eyes.’

‘By all means, take your phone for emergencies. However, try to leave it in your bag or pocket, and focus instead on what’s ahead of you,’ Streets adds.

Walking can help you beat cravings and addiction

Not only can walking help people manage dependencies on nicotine and other drugs but it can even help banish food cravings. This is according to a study from the University of Exeter. Researchers found that just 15 minutes of walking stopped regular chocolate eaters experiencing their usual cravings both during and after the walk.

Tune in to your senses while out on a walk

Mid-way through a walk, find somewhere quiet to sit for a minute. Close your eyes and breathe through your nose. What can you smell? Concentrate on the feelings and associations that come up. Does the smell remind you of a colour? Or a shape?

‘What comes up for you can be an indication of how you are feeling inside. Perhaps you need some healing? Take some time to consider your present state,’ says Jonathan.

Try a walking meditation

‘Meditative or “paced” breathing is a technique long used by Afghan nomads, which was first identified by Frenchman Édouard Stiegler in Kabul in the 1960s. They reportedly walked more than 30 miles a day, yet always appeared radiant,’ says Streets.

‘They explained to him how they had developed the meditative breathing style to help them walk further. Paced breathing is where you inhale through your nose and exhale through your nose or mouth in time with your steps.

‘For example, inhale for a count of three and, in that time, complete three walking paces; hold it for one pace and, as you do another, exhale. This helps to create a very mindful and rhythmic way of walking. It aligns mind, body and heart, allowing you to walk further and feel refreshed.

‘Embrace this on familiar routes. If you’re going on a walk where you haven’t been before, you don’t really want to be doing your paced breathing. Instead, you’ll want to be taking in the sights and sounds. If you’re walking a regular route – perhaps to work or school, and you’re very familiar with your surroundings – then it’s an ideal time to try it,’ Streets adds.

Click here to find out more about walking meditations.

Boost your vista vision while walking

‘When out for a walk, lift your gaze towards the treetops and beyond – over the rolling hills, across the fields, past the clouds or over the rooftops. Whatever’s in front of you, look ahead as far as you can,’ Streets recommends, explaining how walking can help your mental health.

‘This sort of gazing into the distance will boost what’s known as your vista vision. It is incredibly restful and restorative for your eyes and mind. This will also automatically reduce the amount of cortisol – the stress hormone – flowing around your body. This allows tension to simply melt away.‘

Another reason we enjoy walking in hills and mountains and other places where there are good views is due to something innate and evolutionary from our early existence. It’s a type of safety feature – when we can see out for miles, we can see there are no predators or enemies. This means we feel instinctively safer and more at ease.

walking and mental health how does walking help mental health
Group nature walks have been linked to significantly lower levels of depression and enhanced wellbeing.

Go walking with others for greater mental health benefits

Going through a stressful time? There’s good reason to make your walk a family affair, join an organised group walk or persuade friends to join you.

How does walking with friends help with your mental health? Group nature walks have been linked to significantly lower levels of depression and enhanced wellbeing. This is especially true in those who had recently gone through a stressful life event, according to a study done at Michigan University.

‘Walking alone is ideal if you feel in need of time for reflection,’ explains Streets. ‘But walking with friends can have huge benefits, too. If you’re taking on a challenging route, then walking with others can be extremely motivating

‘Studies show that when you walk with a friend, distances seem less intimidating and heights don’t seem so high,’ Streets explains. ‘This is because you’re chatting with people and thinking of other things, rather than focusing on a route’s difficulty level. You’re also motivated and encouraged by the presence of others.

‘A recent study shows that if you are on your own and the walk suddenly appears to be getting the better of you, simply imagining a friend with you encourages you to push on. It’s also a fantastic bonding experience. This is because conquering something with others brings you closer and gives you that shared sense of achievement,’ adds Streets.

Mix up your walking routes

‘A recent study found that walkers who regularly walk more varied and different routes enjoy brighter mood. They also suffer much less anxiety,’ explains Streets. ‘The reason for this? Researchers found that our brains rather enjoy novelty.

‘Walking the same route each day creates boredom. However, being a little more ambitious and adventurous with our routes will boost wellbeing and help to suppress feelings of anxiety and depression. This is because, on new routes, we are distracted and entertained by our surroundings. Plus, our brains are occupied with trying to work out where we are and where to go next,’ adds Streets.

Develop self-compassion through walking

Jonathan believes many of our mental health issues stem from a feeling of shame or inadequacy. ‘Before a walk, write down in a journal how you’re feeling. Notice your inner narrative: is it critical? Do you feel like a victim?

‘After a walk of at least 20 minutes, aim to write a more nurturing script. Talk to yourself in a way that a kind parent would do if they were encouraging their child.’

How does walking barefoot help mental health?

‘It may be a slightly more obscure and niche area of the walking world,’ says Streets, ‘but a fantastic way to achieve serious relaxation benefits is with a spot of barefoot walking.

‘Barefoot walking is exactly as it sounds – walking barefoot without socks or footwear – but how does it help mental health? Soaring in popularity in recent years, barefoot walking is a renowned sensory and psychological experience. It gives you complete harmony and connection to your whole body. In turn, this helps you to disconnect with some of the noise going on in your head.

‘A little like mindfulness, it allows you to be completely present in the moment and not distracted by negative thought. With barefoot walking you have to concentrate and focus on your body. Sandy beaches are the ideal setting for barefoot walks, as the ground is softer.

‘There aren’t too many barefoot-friendly trails in the UK, but there are plenty throughout Europe. A grassy local park or field can also work well. But, a beach or sandy coastline is the dream,’ Streets adds.

More inspiration: How to reconnect with nature

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