Feeling Down? Walking Lifts Your Mood, Makes You Healthier

by | April 12, 2024

According to the American Heart Association, walking is the most popular type of exercise. And why shouldn’t it be? Aside from the cost of comfortable shoes, it’s free — and you can do it pretty much anywhere. Walking provides proven health benefits, including weight loss, decreased blood pressure, improved memory and better sleep. Walking also contributes significantly to your overall well-being.

If you’re a first responder needing a physical and mental boost, consider taking regular walks. This may seem obvious; after all, public safety work used to involve much more walking than it does now. For example, before patrol cars became the standard for law enforcement, officers “walked a beat” — so much that they often developed fallen arches, which explains the old-fashioned nickname “flatfoot” for a patrol officer.

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Today, most of us don’t walk nearly as much in our jobs. However, we can still walk for the pure pleasure of it … and also to enjoy the many benefits of walking on our bodies and minds.

The Physical Benefits of Walking

We’ve already gone over a few of the main physical benefits from walking. People who walk briskly for at least 150 minutes per week (about half an hour, five days a week) can also expect the following:

  • Better feelings of overall health.
  • Reduced risk of developing heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
  • Improved levels of blood sugar and cholesterol.
  • More energy and increased stamina.
  • Lowered risk of developing dementia.
  • Better bone strength and decreased risk of developing osteoporosis.

According to Harvard Medical School, walking also:

  1. Reduces the impact of weight-increasing genes: After examining over 12,000 subjects and over 30 genes associated with obesity, Harvard researchers revealed those who took a brisk daily walk for approximately an hour reduced the effects of these genes on body weight by about 50%.
  2. Helps control cravings: Studies at the University of Exeter showed a brief, 15-minute walk can diminish cravings for chocolate, even in stressful circumstances. Furthermore, research determined walking can decrease both the desire for and consumption of sugary treats.
  3. Lowers the risk of breast cancer: While any form of physical activity reduces the risk of breast cancer, a study by the American Cancer Society showed women who walked for seven or more hours per week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer compared to those who walked three hours or less — even among women with heightened (biological or lifestyle) risk factors.
  4. Alleviates joint discomfort: Studies have highlighted the pain-relieving properties of walking for individuals with arthritis, with some even suggesting that walking five to six miles per week can prevent the onset of arthritis altogether.
  5. Enhances immune function: Regular walking boosts your immune system, particularly during cold and flu seasons. One study found people who walked for at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week, experienced 43% fewer sick days compared to those who exercised once a week or less.

While you can walk inside, either on a treadmill or an indoor track, you get the maximum benefit out of walking when you do it outside. Research shows outdoor walking may produce better mental focus and heighten memory. Also, exposure to sunlight (as long as it’s not to dangerous levels) triggers the body to produce more vitamin D, which can help ward off disease, regulate your mood and increase weight loss.

If you’re feeling down or just “out of sorts,” consider getting outside and taking a walk. The positive connection between walking and depression shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Mental Benefits of Walking

Besides the health gains noted above, walking has also been found to have a strong positive impact on depression. This is an important finding in public safety, as a 2022 study found depression impacts as much as 22% of law enforcement officers, 28% of EMS personnel and 37% of paramedics. Among those in the fire service, studies show 20% will experience depression or other behavioral health problems during their careers.

As noted in a separate research paper from 2022, “First responders are at high risk for disorders that arise from repeat exposure to stress and trauma (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and problematic alcohol use). Although mental health treatments are available, first responders often do not access them, anchored by barriers that include: lack of knowledge, stigma, negative experience with mental health providers, and time-based burdens.”

It’s good news, then, that new research suggests walking can be more than twice as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. In 200-plus separate trials, researchers studied over 14,000 people with major depression disorder to gauge the impact of exercise versus other forms of treatment. Subjects who took a serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) — a major type of antidepressant medication — saw a 26% improvement in their symptoms. In contrast, subjects who walked or jogged on a regular basis saw a 63% improvement in symptoms.

Obviously, walking is not a “cure” for clinical depression. If you’re experiencing depression that regularly impacts your work or personal life, please see a counsellor or other mental health professional for help. (If you’re experiencing thoughts of self-harm, please dial 988 to talk to someone immediately.) Also, if you’ve been prescribed an antidepressant, make sure to talk to you doctor about what’s right for you before discontinuing it.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling down or just “out of sorts,” consider getting outside and taking a walk. It can’t hurt — in fact, it will probably help in ways you never expected.

Getting Out the Door

It’s often been said the most difficult part of any journey is the first step. Walking comes naturally to most of us, but if it’s been a while since you did much in the way of physical activity, you might need help getting motivated to begin. Here are a few ideas to help get you out the door:

  1. Plan your walks. Both research and experience show you’re more likely to exercise if you schedule your workouts in advance. And yes, walking is considered a “workout.”
  2. Walk with a buddy. Walking with a friend is a great way to keep each other accountable for being active. You can walk with a spouse or partner, another family member or a friend. And don’t forget your four-legged friends — dogs love to go for walks!
  3. Start slow and short. Don’t overdo your walks, either with your pace (your walking speed) or your distance. Start with easy walks that are relatively short and try not to increase your overall distance more than 10% in any given week.
  4. Mix things up. For variety as well as safety, avoid falling into a routine with your walks. You can explore different routes, walk at different times of the day, and experiment with hills, stairs and other types of challenges. Agency “step challenges” are another fun way to encourage everyone to get outside and walk.
  5. Be safe. Obviously, take care during your walks to avoid accident or injury. Stick to sidewalks when you can and walk on the left side of roadways (against traffic) when sidewalks aren’t an option. If you listen to music, consider using just one earbud so you can be aware of traffic and other people around you.

It’s worth noting that the positive connection between walking and depression is not a new thing. More than 2,000 years ago, Greek physician and philosopher Hippocrates said, “If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” This is sound advice even two millennia later — and now backed up by modern medical science.

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