Walk your way to a better day - how walking can be used to elevate your mental health
A year ago, if you were asked to think about what it meant to exercise, you no doubt would have thought about your local fitness boutique. With studios popping up all over the globe over the last five years, it has never been easier to find a workout class. Whether you wanted to box, sprint, lift, breathe or stretch, there was something for everyone - no matter which city you were in.
But then, everything changed.
When 2020 hit, society slowed down and so did our exercise schedules. As the global climate and restrictions forced us inside, we had to wave goodbye to our favorite and finest fitness establishments that gave us the best 30 minute sweat. Instead, we said hello to home-exercise (and we don’t know about you, but this got a resounding thumbs down from all of us after a couple of weeks).
As our exercise levels declined, so did the globe’s mental health. A Young Minds survey in 2020 stated that 80% of all respondents agreed that the pandemic had made their mental health worse, with 87% feeling lonely or isolated and the 2021 survey from the same company showed that 67% of people believe that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health. These feelings are here to stay.
Today, there has never been a more important time to take proactive measures to care for our mental health and at Agent Nateur, we believe that the profound benefits of walking and reconnecting with nature are largely overlooked by the wellness community and the world at large.
In a world that shouts about the benefits of regular activity and exercise for the physical body and promotes expensive work out classes, gym outfits and post-training supplements, walking has many many benefits - to both physical and mental health.
For many, the very small act of simply getting outside, putting one foot in front of the other, and connecting back to nature became more important and valued than ever before over the last year, but for those who haven’t yet got walking as part of their wellness regime, here are our top 5 reasons why getting out in nature and going for a walk can truly elevate your mental health.
1. Increase levels of energy and vitality
The Journal of Environmental Psychology explored the connection between the vitalising effects of being outdoors and, particularly, being out in nature.
This study showed that walking in the morning can boost energy levels for the rest of the day.
Boosting your energy levels naturally with a brisk outdoor walk is the perfect way to set yourself up for *another* day in front of your computer screen, rather than reaching for your first, second and third coffees of the morning to get you fired up. Hell no.
2. Mood boosting
Some of the main feel-good neurotransmitters (created mainly in the gut, did you know?) are called dopamine and serotonin.
Exercising influences the creation of these feel-good neurotransmitters that can help you feel more balanced, content and, ultimately, happy on a day to day basis and whilst the simple act of walking may not give us the intense endorphin hit that a spinning class will, walking will encourage your body to produce these happy hormones which in turn will make us feel better and lift our mood.
This will be particularly helpful for anyone who is struggling with mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks and phobias. Win, win win.
3. Increased focus
With walking being proven to benefit your mood, energy and vitality - the benefits don’t stop there. We all know how our anxiety can rise when we have a deadline fast approaching - and walking can help reduce the stress before it comes overwhelming. The answer? Focus
In 2016, the Harvard Medical School explained that “a brief bout of aerobic exercise can help if you need to stay focused on a task and solve problems more efficiently”.
So, on the days when things are super busy and you don’t have time to waste, consider a quick power walk before getting down to work. It will help balance your emotions and help you get through the day in the most manageable way possible.
4. Quality of sleep & balance of circadian Rhythms
Next up, circadian rhythms
It is well known that sleep deprivation can impact your mental health negatively. In fact, around 75% of depressed people show symptoms of insomnia, and many people with depression also suffer from the opposite challenge - too much sleepiness and/or hypersomnia (sleeping too much).
Sleeping problems were historically seen as a consequence of depression. However, growing evidence suggests that poor sleep may actually increase or exacerbate depression. With that research in mind, it is now understood that a focus on improving the quality of your sleep may have a benefit of reducing the symptoms of depression.
The Journal of Sleep Health gave guidance on how you can focus on increasing the quality of your sleep to better balance your mental health. In 2017, they published a study that found that people who were exposed to greater amounts of light during the morning hours between 8am and noon – fell asleep quicker in the evening and had fewer sleep disturbances compared to those who weren’t exposed to natural day light.
This exposure to morning light helps us to regulate our circadian rhythms (our natural 24 hour body clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake) and so getting outside for a walk, particularly in the morning, can help us prime our hormone levels to achieve a good night’s sleep.
More walking, better sleep, better mental health. The connection is there.
5. Avoid SAD
The benefits of walking doesn’t stop there. Getting outside in the winter is also particularly important for those people who deal with seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a condition that can truly make the dark months seem even darker.
If this is something that you struggle with, really focusing on getting outside during daylight hours and maximising your vitamin D levels can be a great way to offset the challenge that SAD can pose to your mental health in the darker winter months.
Ok, ok - I’m sold. But how long are we talking?
It’s a great question - and the good news? We aren’t going to force you to go hiking (although big yes to this if you’re up for that too!)
In 2020, four experimental studies examined the impact of short (10 - 15 minute) bouts of walking. The results consistently showed that these short burst walks were associated with shifts towards calmness and relaxation and what this means is that even a short walk can be beneficial for your mental health.
Getting outside even a couple of times a day and away from the Zoom screen for a quick break can be more beneficial than you thought. No long distance required.
How to incorporate more walking into your daily routine
With life being incredibly busy, sometimes we have to take the extra step of actively blocking these walks into our diary.
If possible, get outside within 10 - 15 minutes of waking up so you can get the daylight on your retina to help you to regulate your circadian rhythms.
If this is not possible, focus on time blocking into your diary for a walk - whether that fits best at morning, lunch or post-work - so this important ‘you’ time doesn’t get overlooked.
Sometimes we like to leave our phones at home so we can disconnect from what’s going on inside of your apartment and reconnect with the outside world and the nature around us. Focusing on the world around us can be a form of a walking meditation, being mindful of the present moment, equally helping us to move towards a more balanced mental state without being fearful or anxious about the future or the past.
On some days however, particularly when there is a large backlog on the to do list, we know that leaving the device at home isn’t always possible. On those days, we know that it is critical that we get outside and get moving, so we will sometimes use this power walk as a multi tasking session - updating our to-do list, listening to our favourite podcast or catching up on overdue voice notes.
With summer here, we love to meet friends for a juice, a coffee and a walk (particularly if they own a dog!).
If you can spend some time together in a green and open space, it’s bonus points if you can take your shoes off and get your feet on the earth to do some ‘grounding’. This grounding, or earthing, has been proven to reduce inflammation, pain, and stress as well as improving blood flow, sleep, and vitality - as well as contributing to more balanced mental health states and flow.
At Agent Nateur, we massively believe that the benefits of walking for your mental health is often overlooked in favour of the benefits that any sort of exercise can have on your physical health.
We passionately believe that we need to change the way we view physical activity in order not to see it as something we ‘have to do’ - but something that we ‘want to do’ for our wellbeing because we truly understand the value it can bring to our mind and body.
Walking is a beautiful addition to our day to day wellness regime and we really hope you can incorporate it into yours too.
By Louise Rumball / @iamlouiserumball
Start with 15 minutes and go from there!
***THESE STATEMENTS HAVE NOT BEEN APPROVED OR REGULATED BY THE FDA. WE ARE NOT DOCTORS, THEREFORE ALWAYS CONSULT WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST***