That’s what I say to myself on days when I feel sluggish, tired, or depressed. Inevitably, my mood lifts, my mind settles, and then my thoughts deepen once I am out the door and moving. There are hundreds of scientific studies outlining the benefits to taking a simple walk. As a therapist, I encourage all my clients to get out and move. And while the occasional walk can lift our mood, regular exercise has shown enormous benefits to mental well-being.
For starters, walking and light exercise can reduce anxiety and depression. When you exercise, your brain chemistry changes through the release of endorphins (‘feel good’ hormones), which have a proven effect on calming anxiety and generally making you happier. One study has found that by increasing your activity levels from doing nothing to exercising at least three times a week, you can reduce your risk of depression by almost 20%. Many doctors and psychiatrists are prescribing exercise over medication for their patients who experience depression. One psychiatrist here in the Bay Area where I live, will only see clients who agree to exercise regularly.
Walking (and exercise in general) can reduce stress. You may experience reduced feelings of stress and tension as your body is better able to control — and lower — cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that our bodies release in response to anxiety or fear. Over prolonged periods, high cortisol levels are linked to a wide range of health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, a lowered immune response, as well as depression and anxiety. One of the answers to reducing these problems is to lower the cortisol levels in our bodies through exercise.
On days when you have a lot to do at work, or you have a project that will require intensive focus, a walk or exercise can help sharpen your mind. As your body tires from exercise, so does your mind, leaving you calmer and better able to think clearly. Some people also find that exercise helps break up racing thoughts or ruminations which can interrupt productive thinking.
Regular exercise can lead to increased self-esteem. When you start to see your fitness levels increase and your body look healthier, it can give your self-esteem a big boost. The sense of achievement you get from learning new skills and achieving your goals through focused physical activities can also help you feel better about yourself and lift your mood. Improved self-esteem also increases life satisfaction and can make you more resilient to feeling stressed.
These are just a few of the ways the simple act of walking or engaging in light exercise improve one’s mental health. So, grab those walking shoes and get out the door and maybe we’ll see each other out there!