Guest Post By: Jessica Vogle
Most of us know that regular exercise, such as walking, is beneficial to our physical health. Just a 20-minute walk helps to reduce your risk of chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes.
But what about the benefits to our mental health? Read on to find out.
Physical Health Benefits of Walking
In a 2022 study by the European Heart Journal, researchers found that doing at least 19 minutes of walking per week was linked to a 40% lower risk of developing heart disease in that time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and two days of muscle strengthening activity each week.
Although 150 minutes of exercise every week may seem like a lot, you don’t have to complete it all at once. You can stretch out your activities over the course of the week and split them up into manageable time slots – 30 minutes, five days a week, for example.
And if that still feels like a big commitment, you can start by adding a daily 20-minute walk to get many of the same health benefits, such as:
- Increased cardiovascular (heart) and pulmonary (lung) fitness. · Improved management of conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, joint and muscular pain or stiffness, and diabetes.
- Stronger bones and improved balance.
- Increased muscle strength and endurance.
- Reduced body fat.
But what about our mental health?
Walking Can Support Better Mental Health
The Mental Health Foundation suggests even a 10-minute walk can help to boost mental alertness, energy and a positive mood. Engaging in regular physical activity, such as a walk, can also increase our self-esteem while reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety. Walking promotes blood flow and circulation to the brain and body, which lifts your mood.
Your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a component of your central nerve response system, is positively impacted by walking. This is advantageous because your stress response is controlled by the HPA axis, meaning that you can feel less worried when you walk for exercise because it actually helps to calm your nerves.
Make It Social
If walking by yourself seems uncomfortable, grab a friend or coworker and make it a social activity. People with strong networks of social support — people they like, enjoy spending time with and feel supported by — tend to handle stress and maintain their mental wellbeing more successfully. Walking with a friend can help to build relationships (and have fun).
Getting started and maintaining motivation can be challenging for individuals who are dealing with anxiety or depression. You can support them by:
- Meeting at the same time and location. This provides structure to your walking which can help to decrease stress and anxiety.
- Encouraging a gradual increase towards their goal. By increasing the frequency, duration and/or pace of each walk, more health benefits can be achieved.
- Making the experience a positive one! Choose a favorite place and celebrate the achievements. Even the smallest accomplishments, such as just getting out to meet for a walk, can have a positive impact on motivation.
How to Get Walking
Now that you know the benefits and have a friend to join, getting started is the next important step. A few tips to consider when starting a walking program are:
- Shoot for success. Find a time that works best for you. If you’re not a morning person, setting a time early in morning may not set you up for success. Keep in mind that, while finding time can be challenging in the midst of our busy lives, fitting in even just a 5-10 minute walk a few times throughout the day can be beneficial.
- Start slow and set goals. Start off with a few times a week or a few minutes a day and build up from there. As your endurance increases, set new goals. Rushing into an activity you are not prepared for may lead to injury or over-exertion. Remember, we want to be successful, and this often takes time and practice.
- Think about comfort. Wear comfortable shoes, appropriate clothing for movement and think about the weather. As your heart rate increases, so does your body temperature. Think about the time of day when the weather may be most enjoyable. Wear a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen for protection. Bring a light jacket if you know it might be chilly or misty.
- Stay hydrated. Whether that means bringing water with you or drinking plenty of water before and after, hydration is a very important part of our health. Staying hydrated also helps to cool you down, which is particularly beneficial for those warmer days.
- Allow time for cool down. Slow down towards the end of your walk, drinking water and allowing your body to rest. If you experience soreness in your feet, legs or knees, elevating your feet can help with blood flow and circulation. Gentle massage in upward strokes can also help to alleviate discomfort. If there is pain that persists, check with your primary care provider.
- Be safe. Checking with your primary care provider is always a good idea before starting any physical activity such as walking. Consider any medications you may be taking that can affect your walking plan. When you go out for your walk, be aware of your surroundings. If walking in early morning or evening hours, go with a friend or be alert. Choose familiar paths and walking routes. If listening to music or podcasts, listen at a volume at which you can still hear external noises. Look for uneven ground, cracks in sidewalks, construction or loose rocks or gravel. Observe street signs and other cautionary information.
- Enjoy! Use your senses to take in the environment around you. What things do you see that you may not have noticed before? What do you hear and smell? Make it a mindful walk. Make note of how you feel before and after you walk. This helps to boost your motivation, and leads to a generally more pleasant experience.
Now that you have some tips on getting started and reminders of the benefits for both physical and mental health, grab a friend, get out and go for walk.