How come so many of us are obsessed with our physical fitness, rather than our mental well-being?
The health benefits of walking are well-evidenced and widely accepted. The NHS Choices website promotes walking as part of its public health campaign. ‘Walking is simple, free and one of the easiest ways to get more active, lose weight and become healthier. It's underrated as a form of exercise but walking is ideal for people of all ages and fitness levels who want to be more active. Regular walking has been shown to reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, stroke and some cancers.’
What is less widely evidenced is walking’s ability to support our mental well-being. Mental health remains too much of a taboo subject in Britain with people more willing to discuss embarrassing physical problems than any form of depression. Channel 4’s show Embarrassing Bodies has people queuing up to bare all on live TV, but is seems unlikely people would be as upfront about their mental vulnerabilities.
And yet walking has as many mood-enhancing properties as it does fitness enhancing properties. The NHS Choices website confirms. ‘In recent years, studies have shown that regular physical activity also has benefits for our mental health. Exercise can help people with depression and prevent them becoming depressed in the first place.’
Walking, like all exercise, leads to the release of the body’s natural happy drugs – endorphins. It’s a good start, but there are other brain chemicals that are affected differently depending on the type of exercise we do. One example of this can be found in our levels of serotonin, the chemical which can lift our mood and increase levels of satisfaction. Low to moderate intensity types of exercise (like walking that relies more on endurance than power), tend to elevate serotonin levels to a greater extent than high intensity types. The rise in serotonin that is experienced with moderate intensity exercise seems to be similar in nature to the rise in serotonin that is experienced when one is surrounded by good friends and family.
There is more compelling evidence about ‘happy walkers’ from a 2007 Japanese study which looked at the links between walking and the stress hormone, cortisol. 12 subjects were recruited for the study and had physiological measures of stress taken six times during the day. Once in the morning on waking, before and after a 15 minute walk either in the woods or the city, before and after watching scenery of the woods or the city on a television, and once in the evening before bed. The researchers showed a significant lowering of cortisol levels from walking in the woods versus walking in the city despite an equal amount of time spent walking in each setting. While walking anywhere can act to balance the nervous system and make us feel more relaxed, walking in a nature setting like the woods seems to have an even greater impact.
So instead of just focussing on fitness, take some time to support your mental well-being. Enjoy a more leisurely walk in a green environment and let the stress melt away and a feeling of satisfaction take its place.