If you read my earlier article, you will already be aware that walking is good for your mental health but do you know how to walk for mental health? Much like with physical health, there are ways we can hack our daily walking to really supercharge those benefits.
If your goal is to walk for mental health, you may pick up some top tips in this article that will help you on your way. If you already have a walking routine, why not see if you can use these tips on how to walk for mental health to maximize your results.
Take Your Breath Away
This comprehensive 2011 article on the effects of aerobic activity on brain structure concludes that aerobic activity is indeed a powerful modulator of structural brain plasticity. The same paper explains that exercise is defined as bodily activity that results in energy expenditure above resting levels and that aerobic exercises use an energy system that requires more oxygen in response to prolonged exercise at moderate intensity.
In short, increasing the intensity to ensure you get a bit breathless for 10 minutes or more can really hit home those mental health benefits including better mood, lower stress, less anxiety, and better self-esteem. If that is not enough, you will make yourself more tired by the end of the day so should sleep better as well.
Better sleep is a huge bonus as this can also impact our mental health
Top Tip: Walking everywhere as if you are late for an important meeting will achieve the desired effect, alternatively, why not try interval walking.
Think about riding a bike, if you push the pedal on the left-hand side, the right-hand side pedal follows it around, and if you push the right-hand pedal the left-hand pedal follows. Well embodied cognition is the theory that the mind and body relationship is similar to the bike pedals. We know the mind tells the body what to do but there is also a lot of evidence to suggest your physiology can tell your mind how to think and what to feel.
This is called anchored feelings and it’s the reason an athlete might have a routine before a game or event. He or She has most likely anchored a mindset they believe to be optimal for performance to a set of actions they can complete. Much like programming quick keys on your phone. Amy Cuddy explains a little bit more about it in her Ted talk.
So Why Should I Look Up?
A few years ago, I read about a woman suffering from depression who was walking in a park when she spotted a squirrel running along the ground. The woman’s gaze followed the squirrel into the trees where she realized she felt better. Watching that squirrel in the trees was the first time she did not feel depressed. I am not basing my theory on this woman’s experience because I can’t find the story again, but I know that standing tall and keeping my chin up makes me feel better, confident, more powerful.
Try it for yourself, it can’t be a coincidence that when we are sad we are feeling low, and when we are happy we are on top of the world. High and low seems to be a default association for how we are feeling so it makes sense that we can use our physiology to hack the way we feel.
Top Tip: Try adopting a confident walking stance. keeping your spine straight and your head and shoulders up can make you feel better mentally while also being physically better for your posture.
Connect With Nature
Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. At least that is the title of this study first published in 2016. The study sent two controlled groups of hikers on separate walks, one group completed a 90-minute walk in the city, and the other group headed out into nature for a 90-minute.
The Study found in healthy participants that a brief nature experience, a 90-min walk in a natural setting, decreases both self-reported rumination and neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex whereas a 90-min walk in an urban setting has no such effects on self-reported rumination or neural activity.
Another study conducted in China sent 2 groups of 10 healthy participants to different locations. The first group spent 2 nights in the forest and the second was sent into the City for the same timeframe. Among the results, the study found that the forest group was registering lower levels of cortisol (your body’s stress hormone) and the Profile of Mood States (POMS) evaluation showed that after exposure to the forest environment, subjects had lower scores in the negative subscales, and the score for vigor was increased.
So there you have it, taking your walk out into nature can optimize reduce stress and improve your mood.
Top Tip: If you live in the city, why not drive out to your nearest large park or a bit of woodland.
When you think of meditation, you may think of sitting on the floor with your legs crossed chanting “Ohm”. However, this is only one way to meditate, and it’s not the most popular. Meditating is simply a way of changing the channel of your mind. By creating an alternate state of reality for a brief period we can alter our mindset to be more equipped for the challenges ahead.
This could be a breathing exercise before a meeting or a cage fighter psyching himself out in the mirror. I personally used to run but instead of concentrating on what was going on around me, I would imagine I was a bird flying high but watching me run. By leveraging the imaginary gaze of a bird I was able to forget the daily kerfuffle while still being aware of what was physically going on around me.
In the age of internet enlightenment, we are hyperaware of so much more than we used to be which makes it difficult to switch off. Imagine if you were physically active for more than16 hours a day every day. You can do it at first but it’s likely to get painful.
So What Is Mindful Walking?
Mindful walking is a form of moving meditation and if we are facing stress at home or at work it is a great way to unload all of the negative feelings for a little bit… Imagine carrying a heavy bag around all day but for 45 minutes it weighs nothing. That is 45 minutes to be savoured.
While you are walking, simply focus on your breathing, watch the wildlife and let your thought respond to your immediate sensory experience. It takes practice so if you catch yourself worrying about your next meeting or what is for dinner, just refocus. Before you know it you will be a natural.
Top Tip: Try watching squirrels, ducks, and other wildlife. The movement will make it easier to distract your brain however, it does not matter what you are focussing on as long as it’s what you are seeing around you and you are reacting to the moment.
Walk With Like-Minded Positive People
If you are walking as a way of staving off stress and depression, you probably want to avoid negative thoughts. Being mindful is great for this if you are on your own, however, walking with others can also be a worthy distraction.
The challenge some of us face when we are talking even to our loved ones is a negative response. It natural for humans to derisk things in our minds and this means we can have a tendency to subconsciously focus on the negative.
If you are walking with a partner, try and pick someone who will look at the positives will motivate you to keep going and most importantly is as comfortable having an idle chat about squirrels as they are about more serious subjects. You should also be selfish enough if someone makes you feel worse, whether you like them or not, they should not be in your walking space.
Top Tip: Why not join or start a walking group in your area.
Leave Your Phone In Your Pocket
In this day and age, you cannot argue that the internet and smartphone technology has reached a golden age for information and awareness. You can reach into your pocket to order food, get news and weather updates and call almost anyone as long as we know their number (and even if we don’t we can probably find them on Facebook.) Perhaps most importantly, if we are in danger, we can seek help using our phones.
However, if walking for mental health is important to you, don’t need to be looking at celebrities on Instagram and you certainly don’t want to be looking at work emails.
In the interest of safety first, do take your phones out walking with you, but try to treat your walk with the sanctity of an important business meeting. Having some undisturbed “you time” will give you a safe space and a feeling of control.
Top Tip: Make your walk your sanctuary. A period of time where you are basically unavailable to everyone.
I could have wrapped smiling in with “looking up” as it also relates to physiology influencing mental state but I wanted to finish on a smile. Yes, forcing a smile, even when you don’t feel like it, can benefit your mental (and physical) health.
To help you understand how this works I am going to use the example of Pavlov’s dogs. For those not in the know, Ivan Pavlov was a Russian scientist who, in the 19th century conducted an experiment on his dogs. Knowing his dogs would salivate every time food was brought to them, Pavlov would ring a bell every time the food was going to be brought in. The bell would ring before the dogs had seen the food so prior to the bell ringing, the dogs would not know the food was coming.
Initially, the dogs salivated when the food was brought but eventually, they started to salivate at the sound of the bell even when no food was then brought. The dogs had associated an auto-response of salivation, to the sound of the bell. The dogs had spent so long salivating after hearing a bell, they were now programmed to do so.
The idea is that we can do the same when we smile. Smiling is an involuntary response to being happy, however, we now associate all the muscles needed to smile, with the feeling of being happy. When we are happy, the brain doesn’t necessarily know whats caused it. So if we force a smile, we will associate that with being happy and eventually trick our brains into feeling happier.
How To Walk For Mental Health?
With so many of us facing challenging times, knowing how to walk for mental health could be an essential weapon in your arsenal. Hopefully, you can use some of these tips to keep your head above water when things are challenging.
Do you use walking as a means to better mental health, maybe you use some of the methods I have listed above, or maybe you have some ideas of your own. Please let me know what you think in the comment section below.