How Walking Can Boost Your Mood and Reduce Stress

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Walking and exercise have benefits beyond the merely physical. Many people walk as much for mental and spiritual well-being as for fitness.

Can walking boost your mood? Can it help you deal with life stress? Can it help you work through relationship problems? Can it lead to a deeper spiritual and religious life? For many, the answer is yes.

Ways to Walk Away Stress

Walking can help relieve stress. Walking gives you time to think, as well as time to get away from stressors. Getting out of the stressful environment, breathing the air, and feeling your body move is natural stress-relief.

A study published in 2018 showed that even a short bout of walking lasting just 10 minutes can improve mood in young adults when compared to no activity at all. Researchers also noted that a short bout of meditation had the same effect.

Other ways walking can relieve stress:

1. Take a Break: Put physical and mental distance between you and the stress-causing environment. Get up and take a 15-minute walking break.

2. Loosen Up: Many people carry stress by tensing their muscles. By getting into your correct walking posture and form, you un-knot those muscles and put them to work. For further relaxation of your shoulder and neck, try doing some shoulder rolls forward and back while you're walking, and then let your arms swing freely.

3. Get Out of Your Head: Take a break from your internal worries. Observe the environment around you; enjoy the trees, flowers, birds, gardens, sky, or window shop strolling past storefronts or in the mall.

4. Reconnect With Your Physical Body: Think about from head to toe how your body is working to carry you along. You may want to practice breathing techniques. For example, you can match your steps to your breath (inhale for 4 steps, exhale for 4 steps, or whatever pattern works best for you). You can also work on your walking form or simply feel the sun, breeze, mist or rain on your skin.

5. Burn Calories From Stress-Eating: Many of us turn to comfort food or high-calorie convenience food when under stress. Walking is a good way to burn calories without having to change into workout gear. Get up and get moving. 

6. Time to Think: "All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking,” said philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Take a walk and the blood flow to your brain is increased. It gives you time to consider different aspects of your problems away from the distractions of your office or home. Creative ideas and solutions may flow more easily.

7. Talk and Laugh: Choose a fun walking companion who can distract you from the things causing your stress. Let them entertain you and bring out your happy side. Play on the playgrounds you might pass by. Be silly. Have fun.

8. Vent: Choose a walking companion who is willing to listen to what is causing your stress and give you emotional support and advice. If you can find a person who is skilled in problem-solving and counseling, this can be productive.

9. Widen Your Vision: Stress can give you tunnel vision, narrowing your worldview to the immediate problem. Take a walk and observe what is going on around you. What are other people doing? Is a new neighbor moving in? Are co-workers preparing a party? What are they building across the street? Where does this new walking path go? See that there is more to life than your problems.

10. Lower Your Blood Pressure: Stress can be a factor in high blood pressure. Studies have shown that walking can lower your blood pressure and reduce your heart health risk.

11. Walk in a Park for Increased Stress Relief: Studies found that walking in a natural environment had greater effects for stress relief than walking in an urban setting.

Cautions: If you are a natural worrier, you face the risk of turning even your stress-relieving walk into its own set of worries.

Walking Boosts Mood and Relieves Depression

Walking and other exercise leads to the release of the body's natural happy drugs — endorphins. Walkers who walk at a brisk walking pace to raise their heart rate will notice this effect more than those who walk at a slower heart rate pace. But even at a slower pace, most people notice an improvement in mood.

Many physicians recommend adding regular walking and exercise as a natural treatment to relieve a bout of depression. The cause of depression is related to brain chemistry. By getting your brain to release more of the happy chemicals — the endorphins — you achieve naturally what many prescription drugs and herbs try to do artificially.

Depression can be a serious and life-threatening disease, so consult your health care provider if your mood is leading to problems in your life or if you have suicidal thoughts. Use walking as a part of effective treatment for mood disorders, which may also include talk therapy and drugs.

Studies published in 2015 found that walking in a natural environment reduced rumination and anxiety.

Improve Mental Sharpness

Several studies have suggested that walking may help improve cognitive function, especially in older adults. One study involved healthy older adults aged 60 to 72 years from a local community in Shanghai, China. They took part in both a Tai Chi exercise program and a walking exercise program. After each program was complete, participants showed improvement on a Stroop test which measures cognitive function.

Another study showed that even low-intensity walking was associated with improved hippocampal volume in older adults. Hippocampal atrophy is associated with memory impairment and dementia. 

A study in 2011 showed that older adults walking 40 minutes a day, three times a week, reduced the normal age-related shrinkage of the brain's hippocampus, which is where the brain processes memory and emotions. After a year, they improved their performance on spatial memory tasks.

How to Use Walking to Improve Your Relationships

Walking together for a half hour or an hour leads naturally to conversation, sharing, and the time it takes to finally spit out what is on your mind. My husband and I enjoy pre-dinner walks where we can decompress from the stresses of the workday, as well as plan upcoming adventures.

You can build your walking habit by walking together. This is a great way to stay motivated to keep walking. I know of couples who wouldn't let each other "get ahead" of them in the number of volkssport walks they completed.

Walk with your children and your grandchildren. Special hours spent alone with one parent and one child can make lasting bonds and memories, especially for children who always had to share their parents with other siblings. A long walk is a perfect way to spend quality time together, not distracted by meaningless "entertainment."

It is easy to make new friends on the trail. You will often find yourself walking with some new and interesting person, or renewing relationships with old friends. Walkers form an instant community, and you can soon meet new friends of every age. Walkers have in common the joy of walking and a willingness to go places and see what is there.

How to Use Walking in Your Spiritual Life

Walking gives you time to go deeper and consider fundamental questions: What is the purpose of life? Am I fulfilling my purpose in life? What have I done that has made the world a better place? What ought I do? Have I caused hurt that I should now mend? What comes after life? What is the best way to live the rest of my life?

These are questions for believers and nonbelievers alike. The time away from other cares and pressures gives you time to dwell on these fundamentals.

Those working on positive thinking and affirmations can use their walking time to create or reinforce their affirmations.

Carolyn Scott Kortge says in The Spirited Walker, "Movement in the body brings movement in the mind. It is natural alchemy. So many of us seek this kind of movement in our lives, a fusion of being and doing. We long to restore wholeness within ourselves and to connect with one another and with the spiritual values that sustain and guide us."

Walking can be used like yoga to clear the mind and make yourself present to the moment or as a preparation for meditation. You can re-connect your mind and body, and lose yourself in the perfect expression of rhythm, breathing, moving.

Walking can also be a tool to connect believers with God. Some use their walking time systematically to pray and to receive spiritual inspiration. As I walk, I give thanks for the beauty I see around me both in nature and in people I pass by or walk with. Praise comes easily and at times I feel like breaking into songs of worship, and do so if I am alone. The rhythm of walking and the integration of body and mind leaves you open to talk with God, uncluttered by other intrusions.

Walking has been used as an instrument for prayer by monks through the centuries. Walking a labyrinth is an ancient technique for prayer and meditation — read about Walking the Labyrinth for some modern-day places to practice this spiritual quest.

9 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Wendy Bumgardner
Wendy Bumgardner is a freelance writer covering walking and other health and fitness topics and has competed in more than 1,000 walking events.