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Walking and Mental Health

A daily walk is associated with cardiovascular health benefits and weight loss — and it’s an accessible mental-health tool that we can all employ.

May 31, 2022, 10:06 AM EDT / Updated June 1, 2022, 10:35 AM EDT For many, the laid-back vibe of summer allows for some wiggle room in our schedule to refocus on our health. It's no secret how much our physical and mental health has suffered over the past few years. So it’s time to show ourselves some compassion. That’s why this month we are getting back to basics and focusing on small, actionable changes (like a daily walk), which is something that I always advise my weight-loss clients to do. Walking isn’t just great for physical health; psychologically, walking helps relieve stress and increase mindfulness, according to research. In fact, I encourage many of my weight-loss clients to add in a transition walk in the early evening to ease them from their work mode or daytime mode into their evening mode. The mental benefits alone can shift your outlook and make you feel more relaxed for the evening!

I created a very accessible walking workout plan this month — nothing strenuous! — to help you get moving again after being sedentary or move your body in a way that feels good. Plus, this workout can be a mental break and give you much-needed “me” time. The first half of the plan we will focus on making 20-minute daily walks a habit. The weekly mental health challenges will help get your head in the game and help you release any stress or anxiety that you’ve been carrying. The second half of the plan we will incorporate a strength-training routine to support your cardio plan. Download a printable calendar here. Although simple, walking has tons of health benefits, both physical and mental. A daily walk is associated with cardiovascular health benefits and weight loss, and if done consistently, walking can improve your cholesterol levels and blood pressure and slow bone decay. Walking is also an accessible mental-health tool that we can all employ. Walking has been shown to relieve stress and increase mindfulness if done in an intentional way, and can even help treat symptoms of depression and anxiety. Of course, walking can always be done on a treadmill or an indoor track, but if the weather permits where you live, grab a water bottle and get outside for some fresh air. Giving yourself the time to take a stroll and absorb your surroundings — even if it’s just for a few minutes each day — can do wonders for your mental health.

  • Walking workout 1: 20-minute slow walk. Get moving and focus on breathing, form and clearing your head. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Pump your arms as you walk. Step one foot in front of the other mindfully, pressing down with your full foot and being cognizant of not walking on your toes or striking too hard with your heel. If you’re feeling bored with this, try taking a different route or finding an inclined surface to vary your routine. But make sure to keep it simple and focus on your breathing.

  • Walking workout 2: 20-minute speed-it-up walk. We’ll speed things up slowly and mindfully. First, clock yourself at a normal pace for 4 minutes. Then speed up and walk briskly for 4 minutes. Alternate for 20 minutes total. If this starts to get easy, quicken your pace or increase the amount of time you spend walking briskly. Or, if you don’t like keeping track of time, keep track by blocks or mileage. After 4 blocks of regular pacing, speed up for 4 blocks.

  • Step it up: Are you ready to step it up during your walk? Here are some options that I’ve added to my walks over the years and recommend to my clients: Use wrist weights and pump your arms to not only tone and strengthen your arm muscles, but also increase the cardio workout of the walk. Strap on ankle weights to add in strength training of the lower body, making it more challenging to take a step! Every other block, or every 100 steps, change it up and do butt kicks or high knee marching instead of traditional walking. Alternate between regular walking and butt kicks or marching to loosen up your hip flexors, stretch your quads and improve your balance.

Mental health weekly challenge Contrary to popular belief, physical and mental health are not completely separate entities. Moving more can help improve your mood and decrease your risk of depression, according to Harvard Medical School. And you can give this benefit an even bigger boost by purposefully engaging in mental health exercises while you move your body. Below are some simple ways to shift your mindset and de-stress during your daily walking workouts.

  1. Pick a one-word mantra and spend time focusing on it during your walk. It could be something like PEACE, STRENGTH or RELAXATION.

  2. Pick a natural element, like the sun, trees or the wind, and whenever your mind starts stressing and wandering, bring yourself back to that element.

  3. Listen to a positive podcast while on your walk. This could be about creating a positive mindset or about any topic that makes you happy.

  4. Take a break during your walk to take some deep breaths while stretching. Focus on the inhale and exhale, letting any thoughts that’s come to mind simply pass through.

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