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3 ways walking every day helped my mental health

Image of man walking on the horizon
Jad Limcaco | Unsplash
Tips & tricks by Marco Ricci

As technology leads us into a future where everything is becoming one finger tap away, physical movement is becoming less and less necessary. And with it, our attachment to simple health management behaviours, like regular walking, is diminishing. Marco Ricci highlights how walking every day for a month helped his mental health, and why we should never underestimate the power of a walk.

For the whole of January, we at Talking Mental Health set ourselves a challenge: we wanted to walk a total of 30,409 metres per week to highlight the number of people treated for alcohol addiction last year in the UK who also had a mental health issue.

Now, just over 30km of walking per week sounded pretty daunting, so I decided to break the target down into six five kilometre walks per week, with one day off to recover. Even then, it wasn't by any means an easy thing to do. Leading a fairly busy life, finding the time to go for a walk – which averaged out at between 40 minutes to an hour for six days of the week – was sometimes very difficult, and doing so in one of the coldest months of the year wasn't always something I wanted to do.

But I, and other members of the Talking Mental Health team, did it. And, despite the month of mornings having to climb out of a very warm and cosy bed to venture outside in the cold for up to an hour before work was something we all agreed wasn't our favourite thing in the world, we all felt grateful that we did. And that's because, over the course of 31 days, we had all come to realise the power of walking.

For me, walking has always been a remedy when I haven't been feeling too good. But I'd never gone for a walk every day for 31 days in a row before. And in that timeframe, my eyes were opened to just how effective a tool walking can be for managing my mental health. Here are five ways in which it helped me.

1) I knew it was doing good for my physical health

The first and perhaps most obvious benefit it brought me was the improvement in my physical health.

The change didn't seem huge, but thinking back to how I was physically feeling during the last few walks compared to the first few, there was a clear difference. My legs and feet felt stronger and more capable of blasting through the 5k, while the actual pace of my walks was much quicker. I also wasn't graced with such a sweaty forehead at the end of each walk, which I thought was pretty impressive considering I was walking so much faster.

I also made sure I was weighing myself every day because, prior to starting the challenge, I heard that walking was one of the best things you could do for weight loss. And sure enough, I'd lost around 4 lbs – equivalent to the NHS-recommended weight loss of 1 lb per week for any weight loss programme. And just to provide some context, I hadn't done anything spectacular to my diet at all.

Naturally, all of these physical benefits made me feel good. I was making progress in something I care a lot about (leading a healthy lifestyle) and I wasn't having to put in as much effort as, say, a 45-minute spin class or a week of intense gym sessions. It was a win-win!

2) It gave me time to appreciate nature

In the modern world, I think it's fair to say that we can often find it difficult to appreciate everything that nature has to offer. And it's understandable when you consider what an average day for many of us looks like: we wake up and spend a couple of hours getting ready for the day, commute to our place of work or a space in our homes and spend the next 8 hours working there, come home or migrate to our lounge, eat dinner, and then not long later we go to bed. For many of us, we do that for five out of every seven days.

Walking outdoors for up to an hour every morning removed me from my usual indoors life, and the many tasks it brought with it. It took me from a building full of distraction and mental 'noise' to an environment that, in comparison, provided me with psychological freedom. There wasn't anything vying for my attention – instead, I had the leisure of simply witnessing what was happening around me.

Image of sunrise through the trees on a winter morning

One of the many sunrises I had the pleasure of witnessing

And having that freedom allowed me to start noticing the nature around me: the birds zipping between trees and chattering away to each other as if I wasn't there; the squirrels playing and searching the undergrowth for their next snack; and the many, many dogs having what seemed to be the time of their lives.

By the end of 31 days, I felt like I'd become aware of a completely new world (which of course had been there all along) and I came to appreciate all the things that I usually take for granted. Even with the icy cold air providing a borderline painful edge to proceeding at times, I found myself looking forward to witnessing the colours of new flowers beginning to grow, the robins greeting me as I entered my local park, and the morning sunrise bouncing off the frosted grass.

3) It helped me focus on what mattered

To pinpoint exactly what the key change walking for 31 days straight had on me was, it was that it gave me an alternative perspective.

In life, it's very easy to get consumed by everything that's going on – your work life, relationships, your health, your hobbies, your dreams – and all of it can take up a lot of your mental capacity. That wouldn't necessarily be an issue if it weren't for the fact that a sizeable portion of all of that information is not helpful. All of those niggling emotions tied to unimportant things, like a mini-fallout you've had with your partner over something irrelevant, or a work email that's rubbed you up the wrong way – they all take up an unnecessary amount of psychological real estate that could otherwise be spent on something you enjoy.

Surrounding myself in nature helped me appreciate the beauty of the world that I too often take for granted

When you have enough of all that for too long, it's easy to develop a kind of tunnel vision of thinking. That one mini-fallout suddenly becomes a series of mini-fallouts, and that one email turns into several. You start to build these characters and narratives that are far from helpful and can actually begin to erode relationships you have with people.

Being outside physically pulled me out of the environment in which this complicated mental web of thoughts developed, and instead put me in a scenario in which nothing carried an emotional weight to it. And with that, a degree of mental space developed too. No longer was I in the centre of this web surrounded by my thoughts, but I was on the outside looking in.

It felt like I had a completely different perspective and was able to think about my mental health objectively rather than subjectively, which very quickly helped me eliminate those thoughts that were doing me harm.

Never underestimate the power of a walk

It's perhaps quite difficult for you reading this to fully empathise with the three points I've explained in this article, but I really must emphasise how much going for regular walks has helped me. I now have a full appreciation of what they can do to help my mental health and I hope that this article has given you the inspiration to try going for regular walks yourself.

If you're still not convinced then let me pass on one final piece of advice someone gave me when I was younger. Walking is one of the first things we learn to do in life, when the world feels full of possibilities and life seems so much simpler. But as we get older, we walk less, and substitute it for other methods of transport or hours sat behind a desk or on the sofa. Some of us lose the ability to walk altogether. At the same time, our lives seemingly grow more complicated and stressful. Is it any wonder then that a simple walk outside has the power to provide us with such mental clarity?

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