Imperial Health at Work


The physical and mental health benefits of walking

By guest writer and Imperial Health and Wellbeing manager Mike Diamond.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘laughter is the best form of medicine’, but research suggests that walking may be an even better remedy.

Walking offers enormous benefits to our health and wellbeing, and there is an ever expanding and conclusive body of evidence to support the notion that we need to be more active in our daily lives.

But, despite this, as a nation our activity levels in recent years make for grim reading, indicating little, if any change. Even worse, some statistics suggest that physical activity is on the decline!

A 2013 government report indicated that over a third of adults in the UK were not achieving the Department of Health’s recommended levels of activity, making us the third most inactive country in Europe. This problem was summarised rather neatly by a 2015 Academy of Medical Royal Colleges report that described a nation moving more and more towards ‘a sedentary society due to changing work and domestic habits and patterns’. The report also asserted that in the UK today, 50% of all adults spend more than five hours sitting down each day.

Doing physical activity could save your life

As a country with an ageing population, this doesn’t seem to bode too well for the future. As research indicates that the more active we are as children and adolescents, the greater the chance of this behaviour ‘tracking through’ to our adult life, it is pretty worrying to read that today’s children are the ‘least active generation in history’.

According to research findings, the effects of this inactivity on illness and mortality are shocking. A sedentary lifestyle has negative effects comparable to that of smoking, and is one of the principle causes of a huge number of common health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, various cancers and strokes.

In 2012, physical inactivity was deemed responsible for 17% of early deaths in the UK and is one of the ‘big four’ causes of preventable ill-health (up there with smoking, poor nutrition and excessive consumption of alcohol). Sitting too comfortably for too long can literally be taking years off our lives.

Walking can improve your mental health

And what about the mind? Could our apparent lack of physical activity be having a negative impact on our mental health? And furthermore, could increasing our activity levels not only increase our physical health and life expectancy, but also improve our mental wellbeing?

There’s no denying that we live in a stressful era – the recent past has seen the UK struggle with economic pressures and issues such as job security. One Mental Health Foundation study showed that almost half of people surveyed (47%) claimed they felt stressed on a daily basis and 59% reported that their lives were generally more stressful than they were five years previously.

Thom Hartmann, psychotherapist and author of ‘Walking your blues away', believes that as a result of us walking less, we are missing out on a great therapy, and are more stressed as a result.

And although a link between a decrease in walking and an increase in stress is arguably hard to prove, what we cannot deny is the extensive and ever-growing body of evidence supporting the benefits of physical activities, especially walking, and their positive physiological and psychological effects.

From a psychological viewpoint, research findings indicate that walking, and physical activity in general, can be an effective method to enhance positive moods, relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, aid sleep, cognitive performance and improve quality of life.

As the Royal College of Psychiatrists put it – for the body to work properly, it needs regular exercise. The mind cannot function properly unless your body is working properly. Too often, we talk about the mind and body as completely separate things – but they aren’t. They are one of the same thing, and need each other in order to function, and function well.

By doing less and less exercise and activity, and by feeling more and more anxious, depressed or stressed we run the risk of getting caught in a harmful downward spiral where we feel less and less inclined to get off our backsides and do something active.

Why walking?

We have previously encouraged walking because of the weight of evidence demonstrating how engaging, affordable and inclusive it is. It is the most popular health-oriented physical activity in the UK and as long as we are able to walk, is something all of us can incorporate into our lives. If you don’t have the luxury of spare hours to roam the UK’s beautiful countryside, try walking a few extra bus stops to/from work, using the stairs instead of the lift or doing the occasional walk at lunch for some fresh air.

Regular, moderate activity can be as effective as shorter bursts of more intense activity, and we can either be active for the whole 30 minute session recommended by the Department of Health, or break it down into smaller 10 minute chunks – a very achievable target with walking. Statistically speaking, walking is the most likely way all adults can achieve their recommended levels of physical activity according to the National Institute of Clinical Excellence.

There is also evidence to suggest that walking in particular can have some very beneficial effects on our mental wellbeing, particularly when dealing with stress or stressful events.

The natural, rhythmic, side-to-side motion, or bilateral movement caused by walking causes nerve impulses to cross back and forth between the left hemisphere (the thinking side of the brain) to the right hemisphere (the feeling part of the brain) which induces emotional and intellectual healing from issues such as trauma and stress. This is a concept also seen in other forms of psychotherapy, such as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique and Thought Field Therapy.

Exercise seems to work with the brain, making us better able to cope with stress by regulating our stress response. Research from Princeton University has found evidence that brisk walking and running activated soothing neurons in the hippocampus, reducing the response to stress and making anxiety less likely to interfere with normal brain function.

So not only does walking offer a means to calm us down, it would seem it has the potential to boost our resilience to stress in the longer term.

So what are you waiting for? All you have to do is get up and put one foot in front of the other for 10 minutes three times a day.

Consider it an investment, and an excellent one at that – in your physical and mental health. The cost to you is little – merely 30 minutes total a day and the use of your legs. Compare that to forking out for a gym membership or investing in expensive equipment and you’ll see that the return on that investment seems to get better with every piece of research.

Just open that door, step outside and follow your nose. There’s a park or a quiet lane closer than you think. You might even consider joining a walking group.

Happy walking.

To read more on walking, check out our blogs on endurance foods for your walking workout and tips on staying motivated. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook to find out more about a range of health and wellbeing issues.