Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week and, in preparation for my guided walks, I binge-read lots of the latest studies. During the pandemic, depression and anxiety were experienced by an additional 28% of us. Sadly, we’ve not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels.
In this post I’ll cover what’s new and what’s emerging. And I’ll attempt to answer the big questions: Can a walk really alter our mind and mood? And if so, how?
Scientists already know that movement helps with depression. But a study from the University of Gothenburg found that movement also has a significant impact on anxiety. In this particular study, a group of people (mainly women, average age of 39) who had lived with anxiety for at least ten years were put into three groups – exercising at either moderate or low intensity, or acting as a sedentary control group. After 12 weeks, all those moving had switched from a diagnosis of ‘medium-to-high’ anxiety to a diagnosis of ‘low anxiety’, with researchers noting that the more energetic the exercise, the more symptoms of anxiety fell away.
In summary: When it comes to anxiety, any movement is good but the brisker you make it, the faster your mood will improve. This doesn’t mean you need to puff and pant, but it does suggest that pushing yourself fractionally is a good thing for reducing anxiety.
Another interesting paper from the American College of Cardiology found that while non-depressed or non-anxious people who exercised were 17% less likely to have a stroke or heart attack, when depressed or anxious people exercised their chances of heart failure fell by 22%. Which is to say, exercise is good for all our hearts, but it’s particularly good for the hearts of the depressed or anxious. In fact patients with depression and anxiety derived double the benefit of exercise when it came to heart disease. Why so? Because exercise activates parts of the brain that counteract stress. And this calms the heart. We rarely think about the brain when we think about a healthy heart but this study shows that lowering stress improves the health of our hearts.
In summary: The more down or anxious we feel, the greater the benefit of movement for our heart health. Do it for your heart!
A study carried out during the pandemic found that all regular walkers felt calmer and happier, but those who stuck to the same old routes fared less well than those who habitually explored new areas, unfamiliar landscapes, or parts of town they didn’t know. The brain loves variety and novelty. In new environments our brains switch on, becoming more alert and engaged. According to evolutionary biologists, our brains scan unfamiliar terrain for predators, enemies or any other form of danger that once threatened our survival. The brain is hard-wired to do this, making us feel more alert and focused, but also distracting us from ruminating.
In summary: Mix up your walks, your landscapes and locations. Try a new route every week. Alternatively, walk with new friends, or in a new way (see below). Otherwise, join a walking group where all the thinking, route planning and organisation is done by someone else!
Another recent study found that mixing up our movement also helps with our mental health. People who experienced a variety of movement during their day felt happier than those who only jogged, or only did yoga, or only cycled (for example). The great thing about walking is that you can vary your movements as you walk. You can start briskly, then add in some uphill and downhill, then saunter for a bit, then walk backwards for a minute, and then add in a resistance band (or poles) for some upper body movement, and then a bit of tippy toes to end. According to science writer, Caroline Williams, walking on fairy feet (or tippy toes), makes us feel uplifted in both senses of the word.
In summary: Vary your movements and speeds while walking. Try some skipping, some backwards walking or even a little bounding, dancing or galloping. And be sure to walk on the balls of your feet for a bit – imagine you’re Isadora Duncan or Darcy Bussell and sway along accordingly.
In people with mild-to-moderate depression, exercise can be as effective as an SSRI (a common form of anti-depressant called a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor ), according to many studies. This is because SSRIs and movement seem to operate via a similar pathway in the brain. Which is why some doctors now ‘prescribe’ exercise before they prescribe a pill. Bravo! We’d like to see much more of this please…
Studies suggest that longer durations of lower intensity movement (otherwise known as moderate intensity continuous training or MICT) are more effective than High Intensity Interval Training when it comes to mental health. MICT – moderate movement – is thought to be better at reducing inflammation than high intensity movement as it gives the hormonal effects of movement time to flow systematically through the body and brain. Depression is often considered to be inflammation in the brain, so go for steady and moderate movement.
In summary: don’t worry if sweat isn’t pouring from you, or you don’t have a personal trainer, peleton bike or a gym full of fancy kit. It’s far, far better to go for a 45-minute walk at a slower pace. Unsure what that means? You should be able to talk but perhaps not to sing at full throttle.
How long should you walk/move for? According to psychiatrist and researcher, Adam Chekroud, going for beyond 90 minutes makes no difference to one’s mental health. His research suggests that the sweet spot is …. 45 minutes, five days a week. He calls this the optimum ‘moderate regime’ for lifting one’s mood and wiping away anxiety.
In summary: aim for a 45 minute walk, five days a week. Don’t worry if this needs to be broken into 3 x 15 minute walks. Some studies suggest three shorter walks might be even better if they break up a sedentary day at a desk.
And ditch the gym and get outside somewhere green … Studies show that those spending more time outdoors in nature experienced less depression and anxiety than those who stayed inside, during the pandemic. So make the most of the longer, lighter days by getting out and about on foot as much as you can… What’s not to like?
Do come and join me on one of my guided walks where I’ll be talking in more detail about how to stroll, stride and saunter. I’ll be leading walking-talks at Wimbledon Book Festival, London on June 11th and at the Richmond Walking Festival in Richmond, Yorkshire on Thursday 22nd September. I’d love to see you!