My therapist told me to take a walk: how does activity improve mental health?

Photo by Vinay Tryambake on Unsplash

I am strongly opposed to any sort of regimented physical routine because I have negative experiences with over-exercising and controlling my diet. This article is not about that, this article is about listening to my therapist, and other scientist’s advice about going for a walk when I’m feeling anxious or depressed.

A common saying in recovery is to do the opposite of what you feel, and I’ve found many times that getting up, putting on my shoes, ad going for a walk when I just want to pace around my house or nap under a weighted blanket can have a significant impact on what kind of day I have from that point on.

But why do we recommend exercise to improve mental health symptoms such as loneliness, isolation and depression?

  • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
  • Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
  • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage depression or anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how you feel, or hoping depression or anxiety will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.”

I have also found I experience more productivity in my day if I take the edge off my adrenaline by taking a quick 20–30 minute walk around my neighborhood. This sets me up to have a clear head, helps me think about what I want to get accomplished in the next few hours and even brainstorm up writing topics and ideas.

This doesn’t always work, I’m still not walking everyday, but it does help. My goal is to try and go for a walk at least 2–3 times a week; being self employed means I’m very comfortable rotating around my apartment and sitting in a variety of chairs, so going for a walk is crucial to my physical and mental health.

The Mayo clinic only lists a few of the ways taking a walk can benefit our mental health, and this study does a good job of talking about how the results of many research projects are incomplete, making it difficult to draw exact conclusions.

In this study of a group of post-menopausal women at risk for depression, they found the women experienced, at minimum, a 50% decrease in their depressive symptoms compared to the control group. The experimental group were assigned a moderate intensity walking intervention three times a week at 40 minutes per session, versus the control group who were placed on a waiting list as the placebo.

What makes going for walks so challenging in many cases is the motivation. It can be difficult for depressed people or those experiencing anxiety to put on their shoes, grab their keys, and go for a walk. Many times someone might like the idea, but fail to take action.

This is where the law of momentum can be useful. If you need to go for a walk, it can be helpful to get your shoes on.

  • Putting the shoes on helps your body and mind know it’s time to go outside.
  • Maybe if you enjoy listening to music or podcasts, putting on your headphones can be another way to start the momentum rolling.
  • It’s okay to set little goals at first to help cope with your mental health symptoms.
  • Start by putting on your shoes a few times a week, and choosing a playlist, and finding a route that looks enjoyable and easy.

Going for a walk increases our heart rate, and raises our blood pressure while also activating other senses that may not get full stimulation while at work or inside the house. Use the walk as time to listen to your neighborhood, or watch how the gardens down the street progress.

In my neighborhood, a local deer had twin fawns, and now on my walks I often see the family grazing together while I make a lap around the block!

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Liz Brinks

Hey, I’m Liz Brinks (they/them) I’m a queer gender-non-conforming writer, business coach & cat-parent (@itsjuustliz everywhere) based out of Wisconsin!