Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend. – Unknown
Most of us already know that walking is a healthy activity. Anything that gets us moving and raises our heart rate, even slightly, benefits us physically.
And as far as exercises go, walking is one of the most accessible and convenient ways to stay active. Expensive gym memberships or equipment purchases aren’t required, and it’s an activity anyone can do from just about anywhere. “Walking is an ideal option in terms of physical activity,” says Dr. Cedric Bryant, president, and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “It requires no specialized skill – everyone knows how to walk. It’s low impact and safe.”
But the benefits of walking extend far beyond mere physical exercise. Yes, it burns calories. Walking also contributes to a person’s mental health in a variety of ways. There’s even evidence that walking can impact creativity and productivity.
How Walking Affects Mental Health
Even a very short walk can have a profound effect on mood and overall well-being. Along with other forms of exercise, walking releases endorphins — a class of natural chemicals known to relieve stress, ease depression and anxiety and increase self-esteem. Researchers at California State University, Long Beach concluded that the more steps people took in a day, the better their moods.
While releasing endorphins, walking can also decrease the production of stress hormones such as cortisol. Scientists have found that cortisol levels are greatly reduced after just 20 minutes of walking.
Walking in nature is especially beneficial. One study found that participants who walked outside in a natural setting experienced fewer instances of rumination, a process of repetitive negative thoughts and a known risk factor for mental illness.
Nature walks are also associated with better memory and cognition. Walking in a natural setting has been shown to improve short-term memory versus walking in an urban environment. Study participants who walked among trees fared better on a memory test than those who walked down a city street.
Walking and Creativity
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is reported to have said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” And now there’s science to back up his assertion. Researchers at Stanford University found that walking can increase creative thinking by as much as 60 percent. Since walking doesn’t require much conscious effort on our part, our thoughts are able to wander – and it’s this ideal mental state that often sparks creative ideas and innovative solutions.
Julia Kay, life coach and owner of Your Greatest Day, harnesses the creative and productive benefits of walking with her coaching clients. Through what she calls “coach walks,” Kay attempts to help her clients break through mental barriers.
“Sometimes a simple change of scenery can work wonders on your creative focus,” she says. “You might even come up with potential solutions faster than you would in your normal space.” Dr. Bryant is also a fan of walking for creativity. “I use walking on a personal level when I’m writing an article or editing a book – when I get stuck, I go out and walk,” he says.
The next time you need to decompress, boost your mood or jumpstart your productivity, remember you have a simple but powerful tool: just putting one foot in front of the other.