8 surprising ways a walk can help you de-stress
A number of years ago, I decided to try “one more time” with exercise, and chose walking because it seemed doable. While at first it was just about feeling less stiff and sore, I soon realized that I loved walking for more than just that. To my surprise, walking helped me feel much better mentally and emotionally, too.
In the past, exercise was itself a kind of a stress, because I thought of exercise as something I had to do, not something I actually wanted to do. But the benefits of my new daily walking routine were so strong that it made me want to stick with it.
At the time I was in a stressful job. I came to rely upon and cherish daily lunchtime walks in the fresh air and sunshine as a mini getaway to help me reset and get through the rest of the day. While my job was the same, I changed — because I was better able to handle stress. Eventually this also helped me have the confidence to make needed changes in my life, and to thrive, not just survive. I quite literally stepped into a new me.
During my walking time, I do one of two things: I purposely take a mental break and focus only on the beauty of nature around me; or, I think through problems and find solutions. Walking not only helps work off stress, it helps me be more creative. New ideas often pop out of the blue. And it turns out, research has proven that.
Research proves that walking helps people feel better
Here are some of the many stress-reducing benefits of walking:
It’s an instant mood booster. Physical activity causes changes in the brain chemicals that affect mood. Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, triggering the release of endorphins and serotonin, the “feel good” hormones – especially if walking at a brisk pace to get your heart rate up. Exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body’s stress response. This helps reduce depression and anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stress (American Psychological Association). Walking is a great way to get these mood benefits no matter your fitness levels.
Helps you be more creative and productive. Are you stressed about a problem that needs a solution, or need to think of ideas? People taking part in a recent study were found to do better on cognitive tasks while walking. That’s right – walking can actually improve your cognitive function! And Stanford researchers found that a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60% when walking.
Increases your energy. Are you stressed from feeling run down? Researchers found that a 20-minute walk “enhanced feelings of energy” right away. If you’re in an urban environment and don’t have access to green spaces, don’t fret. Another study found that stair walking was more energizing than a low dose of caffeine!
Helps you sleep better. Life always seems harder when we’re tired. A 2019 study tracked adults who took an additional 2,000 extra steps per day—about one mile—every week over the course of four weeks. Study participants slept longer and better on the days they walked. (Futurity) You don’t need to partake in intense aerobic exercises to have better sleep; health experts say just 25 minutes of brisk walking will do the trick.
Gives you a break to decompress. Whether you are dealing with a trying situation or just the daily stress of work or family life, going out for a walk can give you a much-needed break to step away for a bit and work off some tension. This is a healthier way to cope with stress than arguing, emotional eating or turning to alcohol or other substances.
Walking outdoors especially reduces stress. While any walking is beneficial, one study found that a one-hour walk in nature significantly reduces stress because our brains react so positively to it. Plus, being outdoors helps your body make vitamin D from the sun, which can help fight seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression. Getting morning or mid-day sunlight is especially needed in the fall and winter since it gets dark so early. Just a 20- or 30-minute walk on your lunch break can significantly reduce the stress hormone cortisol.
May help ward off symptoms of depression. Even small amounts of exercise could prevent cases of depression, according to a large study. Adults who did two and a half hours per week of brisk walking had a 25% lower risk of depression compared to those who did no physical activity. Even exercising at half of the recommended time lowered the risk of depression.
Improves your overall health. There are so many health benefits of walking! It strengthens bones, muscles and joints. It also helps prevent or improve type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, and boosts immunity. Walking burns calories, which aids in losing weight. When you are walking or doing other exercise regularly, you’re taking better care of yourself — and that’s a great feeling.
READ: Feel better today: Exercise provides a powerful boost to mental health
How much should you walk?
You may wonder, do you actually need to walk 10,000 steps a day to reap the benefits? There’s not really a right or wrong way to walk, as long as you are being safe. Walking is as flexible as you want to be, so make it yours. Think of it as your “me time.”
Just starting out? Know that it’s great to start small. No amount of time is too little! Even just a few minutes will benefit you and is better than nothing. Carve out a time in your schedule to make walking a daily habit, so that it’s easier to stick with.
There’s no need overthink it, especially if you’re just beginning. Simply put one foot in front of the other and keep going. You don’t need a gym membership. You can walk indoors or out. Grab a family member, join a walking group, or hit the walking trails solo. No matter how you approach it, regular walking has a positive effect on your physical health, mental health issues and everything in between.
Over time, try to work up to doing at least 30 minutes a day. If that seems to big of a chunk, you could divide this into 15 minutes before breakfast and 15 minutes before dinner, or whatever works for you.
Under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ guidelines, adults are encouraged to participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise every week. That can easily be accomplished as 30 minutes of walking at a brisk pace, five times a week.
Start today to experience the stress-busting benefits of walking
I’m not claiming that walking solves all of life’s problems. But it can be a valuable tool in your toolbox to help you feel better, get better, and be better. Even if it only helps a little, it’s worth it.
Exercise lifts your mood, gives you energy, boosts your productivity and creativity, benefits your overall health, and makes you feel good. And this helps you in every facet of your life. That’s why I’m encouraging you, just as I do with my clients, to make it a regular part of your day.
But don’t just take my word for it. Discover all the amazing benefits yourself by taking a walk today. Stop stressing about it — and walk about it.
If you need some guidance, try this four-week walking plan to increase your energy and get fit.
If stress is affecting your quality of life, or if you think you may be struggling with depression or anxiety, contact your primary care provider or use our Find A Doctor tool to connect with a physician or mental health care professional. Healthy Blue members can search for a provider here.