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Your Brain on Walking: Mental Health Benefits of Walking

By Angela Myers 1 year agoNo Comments
Home  /  EcoMedicine  /  Your Brain on Walking: Mental Health Benefits of Walking
Mental health walks

Can walking transform your life and well-being? If the current body of research has anything to say about it, it might be time to take a hike!

As part of the “Your Brain on Nature” series, we examined how nature walks can reduce anxiety and improve your physical health. Check out the most up-to-date research on how you can harness the power of daily walks.

Discovering the Power of Nature

About twenty years ago, I was a successful doctor, a #1 NYT bestselling author, and I helped thousands of people discover the power of culinary medicine as Chef MD on PBS. From the outside my life looked great. But something internally was off.

I worked late into the night, a cloud of stress and anxiety hanging over my shoulders. Every time I tried to take time off, my brain wouldn’t shut off work mode. I was spending more time staring at screens than loved ones or the outside world.

At the same time, many of my friends were taking up outdoor hobbies. One friend walked outside for 20 minutes before work. Another four got up at 5am to hike before work. Many were trading city vacations for nature-filled escapes to mountains, vineyards, and beaches. My friends who made nature time part of their routine felt better and lowered their stress levels. It dawned on me that I should get out too.

So I started. I wrote at 10am on Tuesday and Thursday, “go outside.”

John walking

It didn’t work, until I found something I could do. Walking. Each day, I would walk 20 minutes outside, noticing nature as I went. With each walk, I felt better. I shed the layers of stress, burn-out, and exhaustion and chose to add more joy, lightness, and peace to my life. Walking this way, at my own pace, in places I loved, made my life look–and feel–great from the inside and outside.

As a scientist, I was naturally curious about why walking and nature had such a profound effect on my mood and stress levels so I dove into the research. At the time, there wasn’t a large body of literature on the topic yet, but even then the results were conclusive. Now, the research is even clearer: nature plays a powerful role in restoring our mental health.

Your Brain on Nature

So, what exactly does science say on nature and your cognitive and mental health? Let’s check out some recent studies about the mental health benefits of walking:

  • A meta-review from 2019 found a positive correlation between time in nature and improved cognitive and emotional health, as well as other indicators of good mental health.
  • A recent Stanford study showed significantly reduced rumination after a 90-minute walk in nature compared to a 90-minute walk through an urban environment.
  • A 2014 meta-review looked at a variety of studies on mental health and living in green or urban spaces. The researchers concluded those who lived in green spaces had more indicators of good mental health than those in urban settings.
  • The John W. Brickman Foundation has even mapped the studies on the relationship between walking and different mental health conditions.

Basically, when you spend more time in nature, you improve your ability to focus and make better decisions. You also are stuck less in rumination, which can cause anxiety and depression, and release more feel-good hormones which improve your mood and lower your stress levels. If you want to learn more about the research, consider downloading the 2022 Move Your Mental Health Report from the John W. Brickman Foundation.

Even though the research is clear, few of us spend enough time outside. In fact, we spend 93% of our time inside–and that statistic was pre-2020.

Dog walking

This might be because we’re unsure what to do in nature or find it hard to take time away from our busy, digitally-connected lives. Many people need something to do in nature, especially in the western world. If you tell most people to go outside for 20 minutes and don’t give them a nature activity, they will have no clue what to do. Odds are, they’ll come in early and won’t make going out into nature a consistent practice. Further, giving them something to do gives them a reason and specific action to take when they step away from their digital world.

At first, I was in the same boat: what would I do when I went outside each day? I thought of a way I could supercharge my time in nature. I combined walking with the power of the outdoors.

Walking on its own has some great health benefits. When you walk, your brain releases endorphins that reduce stress and improve mood. A 2013 study that looked at participants with depression who exercised three times a week found that after 12 weeks of regular exercise, ten out of the 12 participants were no longer categorized as depressed.

Walking, like other forms of exercise, also improves your cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, and provides other physical benefits which improve your quality of life.

So what happens when you combine a setting which reduces rumination and improves emotional health (nature) with an activity that releases feel-good endorphins (walking)? You have supercharged your brain and you can live in a state of less stress and anxiety.

Reduce Anxiety With Walking

As a doctor on a mission to help people discover the power of culinary medicine, it was all too easy to give 100% of my time to my work. I spent late nights hunched over a computer, was constantly anxious, and couldn’t find time for my loved ones or hobbies I loved.

The anxiety and stress of living in our modern work culture almost consumed me. Luckily, I recognized something needed to change and found a simple, easy practice that transformed my anxiety: walking outside for 20 minutes a day, noticing nature as I went.

To help others experience this same transformation, I created My Nature Dose. This FREE ten day program lets you reconnect with the world around you and your inner calm through prescribed, intentional 20 minute walks in nature. Mindful walks and time in nature rewire your brain so you’re less anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed. It can improve your energy levels and your overall mental well-being.

You COULD feel better ten days from now. And the solution is free. What are you waiting for? Register for My Nature Dose for free today.


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