By Nazia Islam, LPC-S, RPT
It is well known that movement and exercise have been proven to help with elevating mood and improving symptoms of depression and anxiety. Wherever you are on the spectrum from a little down to clinically depressed, it can be difficult to get motivated with an exercise regimen. The thought process usually goes “I know I will feel better if I exercise, but I don’t have the energy or motivation to start, and in return, I feel crappy because I am not helping myself.” An important reminder is that exercise does not have to be a rigorous 60 minutes at the gym or training for a decathlon. A simple way to get out of the exercise rut and maintain your mental health is by walking.
It is a convenient way to incorporate movement into your life. Walking is free, requires low skill or special equipment and it is safe for almost everyone. It can be done anywhere whether you are in an urban or rural setting; people enjoy walking in parks, gardens, malls, etc. It can be a solitary activity and used to gain mental clarity or a time to listen to music or a podcast. Alternatively, it can be a social activity enjoyed with friends or a partner over good conversation.
Walking is considered an aerobic exercise, aerobic exercise requires you to move large muscle groups such as arms, hips, and legs. The movement will increase your heart rate and breathing, which will in turn circulate more oxygen to your muscles and lungs and carry away waste products such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Walking will also release endorphins and natural pain killers improving your general sense of well-being (Mayo Clinic, 2022). Rosenberg and Davies (2021) report that it reduces cortisol stress and lowers overall stress levels. Walking can also help with your cognitive abilities by reducing brain fog, increasing problem solving abilities and sharper memory, resilience, and creativity. Lastly, walking also improves the quality and duration of sleep. The New York Times reports on a study from Sleep Health and states that “In essence, the more steps people accumulated over the course of the month, the higher their self-rated sleep quality was during that time” (Reynolds, 2019).
Now that you are convinced that walking may be the best start for you, you may be asking how do I get started? Start by walking 10 minutes per day and then slowly increase by 5 minutes until you reach thirty minutes a day. Walks can also be broken up by 3 ten minutes walks a day. Make sure you have the correct gear for walking, although you don’t need any special kinds of shoes or clothing for walking, running shoes and loose clothing may just be more comfortable. Also, consider your safety before heading out for your walk, avoid distractions, walk-in safe places, and be visible. Another thing to consider is using walking apps on your phone to help you get started. Some free apps that are available on phones are MapMyWalk, Argus, Fitbit, Virtual Walk, Charity Miles, Run Keeper, and Pacer. Lastly, for walking inspiration follow an Instagram account that keeps you motivated. The Hill Walking Hijabi, Hiking Girls, undefineableliving, and fitness walker are just a few examples of accounts that can help with staying inspired.
Mayo Clinic. (2022, February 17). Aerobic Exercise:Top 10 reasons to get physical. Healthy Lifestyle Fitness. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/aerobic-exercise/art-2004551
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestives and Kidney Disease. (n.d). Walking a Step in the Right Direction. U.S Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved May 7, 2022 from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/walking-step-right-direction?dkrd=hispw0429
Reynolds, G. (2019, October 30). How Walking Might Affect Our Sleep. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/30/well/move/how-walking-might-affect-our-sleep.html
Rosenberg, K., Davies, C. (2021, May 10). 5 Mental Health Benefits of Walking:From Stress Relief to Problem Solving. Top Ten Reviews. https://www.toptenreviews.com/5-mental-health-benefits-of-walking-from-anxiety-and-stress-relief-to-problem-solving
Swere, K.M, Swartz, A.M., Hart, T.L., Strath. S.J. (2011). Effectiveness of Long and Short Bout Walking on Increasing Physical Activity in Women. Journal of Women’s Health, 20(2): 247–253. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3064872/