Step outside: The psychological benefits of walking

Step outside: The psychological benefits of walking

Over the years, numerous studies have shown the psychological benefits of exercise, in addition to the obvious physical advantages of engaging in somatic activity.

A year-and-a-half since COVID-19 first rose to the top of the global agenda, as the world is increasingly faced with the mental health fallout of the pandemic, it’s worth taking a good look at how the simplest and most accessible exercise of all – walking – can be beneficial to the psychological wellbeing of a citizenry that has had to deal with pressure and stress unlike many of us have ever had to endure in our lifetime.

When all other forms of exercise seem like too much to muster up the energy for, walking is one of the easiest ways to stay active while still reaping the benefits of legitimate exercise.

What walking does for physical health

Like all forms of exercise that increase blood circulation, walking is great for improving the health of one’s heart. Added benefits include reduced cholesterol, improved blood pressure, increased aerobic capacity, improved blood sugar levels, increased metabolism, greater mobility, and a reduced risk of osteoarthritis.

The mental health advantages of walking

According to a 2019 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, one hour of walking a day had real benefits in reducing major depression. Thanks to increased circulation, walking can also have a positive influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is responsible for regulating the stress response in the body. In other words, walking helps with stress – something that all of us are probably experiencing a little more than we normally would have.

Walking has been shown to be a great kick-starter for creative energy. In fact, a number of some of the most acclaimed writers from history are known to have been avid walkers, including Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. One Stanford University study has shown that walking led to more creative thinking than sitting when participants were assigned mental tasks that required imagination.

The great thing about walking’s psychological benefits is that one needn’t exert yourself too much if you’re not feeling like you’re in top physical form. A study published in Emotion found that participants who undertook so-called “awe walks” had pronounced mental health gains from the experience.

Focused on paying attention to the details as they walk, participants were encouraged to cultivate awe as they walked by “looking at everything with fresh, childlike eyes”. Compared to a control group, the participants who were given certain mandates pertaining to the way they observe their surroundings on their walks felt happier, more socially connected and less upset than their idly wandering peers.

How much should you walk to really experience the psychological advantages of getting outside? Experts say it’s not necessarily about the quantity in this regard, but more about the consistency of the effort. Walking an hour a few times a week or just 15 minutes every day should already help to alleviate feelings of anxiety stress and depression. Don’t you think it’s time to step outside?

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