This is a guest post by Tyler Norris and Taylor Koekkoek. Tyler, Chief Executive of Well Being Trust, has shaped health and sustainability initiatives in hundreds of communities around the world. He has an extensive background in population health and community well-being, serving as a social entrepreneur and trusted advisor to philanthropies, health systems, government agencies and partnerships working to improve the health of people and places.
We all know about the benefits of walking for health—weight management, chronic disease prevention, improved cardiovascular health, etc.—but a rapidly growing body of evidence documents how walking regularly, or rolling for those in wheelchairs, has been shown to strengthen mental and emotional health in addition to physical health. And unlike the physical health benefits that can take time to kick in, many of the mental and emotional benefits to exercise can be observed almost immediately.
Physical Activity has been shown to be effective in treating mild to moderate symptoms of depression and anxiety, and can be used effectively to help treat more serious symptoms and conditions when employed alongside other mental health treatments. And unlike many treatment options, physical activity, and especially walking, happen to be free, readily accessible to everyone, and is not accompanied by some of the side effects that can come from pharmaceutical interventions.
Below are just a few of the ways walking and other forms of physical activity can enhance mental wellness.
Promotes cognitive function
A growing body of evidence suggests that aerobic activity, such as walking, helps protect the brain against cognitive decay to age-related and psychiatric disorders. Neuroscientists have known now for quite some time that aerobic exercise leads to the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein that promotes functions crucial to memory, learning, and higher thinking. When you exercise today (regularly), you can benefit your cognitive functioning for decades to come!
You’ve probably heard the phrase “runner’s high” before, but the phrase isn’t as flippant as it sounds; in fact there’s really science to back it up. Exercise releases endorphins, chemicals that diminish sensations of pain, act as sedatives, and also trigger a sort of euphoric, energized feeling in the brain. Unlike morphine, which has a similar (albeit more potent) effect, these endorphins run you no risk of addiction.
The feel-good effects of exercise may begin as soon five minutes after physical activity, but the effects of regular exercise are noticeable especially in the long term. Research suggests that 30 minutes of walking per day, three to five times per week, may boost mood and significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
A welcome distraction
While some of the mood-boosting effects of a regular walking exercise program are physiological, there is also a huge benefit in just getting lost in the activity and forgetting about our stressors for a while. In the study of positive psychology, there’s a term called “Flow,” otherwise known as being “In the zone,” which is the mental state of being fully immersed and focused in an enjoyable, engrossing activity. Walking or rolling is a great way to spend some time away from your worries. Try taking the scenic route.
Exercise might wear you out in the moment, but in the long term, exercise has been shown to actually increase energy levels. Especially in times of added stress, energy is a vital resource to help keep us from feeling overwhelmed. So next time you’re feeling low on energy, instead of reaching for an energy drink or taking a nap, try lacing up your walking shoes.
Yes, exercise gets us in better physical shape, and looking good is feeling good, as they say, but exercise does even more work for our self-esteem than improving our physical health and appearance. When we set and achieve even small exercise goals, that feeling of accomplishment trains us to find a different satisfaction in our bodies and in our efforts. Suddenly we are thinking of our body in terms of what it can do, not just what it looks like. After all, our bodies are not just decoration. These bodies are our means to experience the world!
Promotes social interaction
Exercise is also a great opportunity to connect with others, and improve your social health, which is another indispensable component to any person’s overall well being. Making new friends isn’t easy for most of us, and it has a way of seeming more difficult the older we get. Fortunately walking groups provides a perfect, structured way to get yourself regularly into the company of new people. And if there aren’t any walking groups that exist around you already, you can start your own! Here are some great resources to help you get started.
We want to hear from you. How does walking boost your mood? Join the mental health and well-being conversation online using the hashtag #BeWell. Or share your mental health story at wellbeingtrust.org.