How Walking can ease stress and depression
Tomorrow (April 7th) is World Health Day, and the focus is on Depression. The World Health Organisaton estimates that 350 million people worldwide suffer with depression, it is one of the leading causes of ill health to affect people across the world. Depression knows no boundaries, it can affect young and old, rich and poor, all genders, faiths, colours.
There are many different levels and types of depression, and I am not going to go into them here, you can learn more about depression itself from MIND UK among many other sources on the web.
It was through Mental Health First Aid training with Cardiff MIND a couple of years ago that I really understood that I had been suffering from depression for years. Behaviours that had become so normal to me, but were definitely not ‘normal behaviour’ were explained as symptoms of depression. By the time I realised this, I was in a much better place thanks to Yoga and sobriety, but it was quite a revelation. How could I have been going through this for so long without realising?
I wonder how many other people are struggling through life, not realising that they have a treatable and manageable condition?
Walk the Worries Away
Tomorrow is also National Walk to Work Day in the UK, what a perfect combination of days.
Walking is a fantastic form of exercise that has numerous physical and mental benefits to offer.
Walking to work, or getting off the bus or train a bit further away, or parking the car further away than usual, will give you a great boost in the morning and help to calm your mind ready for the day ahead.
I have been a very keen walker for about 11 years. I started walking after my brother died, and I wanted something to do with my mum that didn’t involve sitting at the table drinking tea and just being sad together (although we did need to do that quite a lot too).
Mum is a keen walker, as was my brother, so it seemed a fitting tribute.
My first ‘proper’ walk was not very long, but it blew my mind as I discovered that my body was capable of more than I had thought, and found that my home town was far more beautiful than I thought.
There have been many walks since!
Walking rapidly became my grief therapy. I quickly discovered that you could cry, scream at the heavens and mutter to yourself without too much disturbance when you are in the hills, something I often needed to do.
I also learned that if I went to the hills with a big problem in my mind, I would return with a slightly smaller one, or at least, feel less overwhelmed by it.
I gained such a lot from walking, not least that the interest in physical exercise that it gave me led me pretty much straight to my first Rhondda yoga class, which ultimately led to my teacher training!
Walking is fantastic physical exercise, but it is the benefits it gives to the mind that I am interested in here, and how it can help beat stress and fight depression.
Nine Ways that Walking can improve mental health
A study in Australia, looking at effects of walking in middle aged women, found that regular walking can ease depression, and while the benefits increase the more exercise is done, small amounts of walking, done regularly, were shown to help
It releases endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemical your brain produces that can lift the mood and reduce physical pain
You can get space to think, or to not think. Walking takes us away from the to do list, and the chores that need to be done, that physical space can provide mental space as well
Let go of thoughts
If you find that you are unable to stop the thoughts from churning over and over in your mind, walking can help by getting ‘out of your head’ and ‘into your body’.
Pay attention to your body, notice the movements you are making, the effect the walk is having on you, notice the information from the senses, listen to the bird song, the sound of your feet on the path, the smells in the air, the feeling of the air on your skin.
Switching your focus from the mental to the physical can really help to let go of rumination and allow you to let go of those thoughts
Increased awareness of body
Walking consciously as I describe above helps to develop greater awareness of the body, and a greater connection with the body. Often depression can lead to us disconnecting with the body somewhat, this reconnection reunites body and mind, and helps us to be more in tune with the body’s need
Professor Jim Horne tells us that a good walk is an effective way to improve sleep. Lack of sleep can exacerbate and lead to depression and stress, so improving sleep is a powerful way to improve mental health
Walking is a great way to connect with others. When you walk with a friend, or in a group, you would be amazed at the sorts of conversation you have! I also find that whenever I meet a fellow walker, there is always a moment of connection, whether it is a simple ‘Good morning’ and a smile, or a brief conversation. If you walk regularly in a place where others also walk, you will begin to form relationships with people and feel real connection to them.
Increased sociability and confidence
This connection with others can lead to increased confidence and sociability, and a reduction of fears of social interaction that depression can lead to
Connection to self
Walking also increases connection to oneself, through awareness of the body, the space in creates in the mind, and the sheer joy of going out for a walk.
The Green Green Grass of Home
I love walking. I am very lucky that I live in the Rhondda valley, a green, hilly place with lots of path leading to some beautiful views! I get filled with awe and gratitude whenever I go into the hills, and take any chance I can to go for a walk.
This morning I went for a walk with my newest family member before I started to walk, and stopped to record this video for you
Where do you love to walk?
Share some of your favourite places to walk in the comments, maybe you could inspire future walks for me or someone else!