Bottom Line: Walking’s benefits don’t stop at physical well-being—here’s how to achieve mental well-being, too.
On top of feelings of sadness and despair, depression can suck the energy out of you. Getting out of bed is a challenge, let alone getting exercise. But if you can push yourself to go outside and just walk, you can affect real change on your mental condition.
It’s almost magical how walking can help with depression, and there’s much more at work than the symbolic move from a darkened room to daylight. Yes, exercise releases endorphins, your body’s own feel-good chemicals, but it goes deeper than that. It also has a positive direct effect on neuroplasticity—your brain’s ability to adapt to changing situations—and that can put the brakes on depression.
Exercise also helps with the physical problems that ride along with depression—including heart disease, often a result of obesity/inactivity, and diabetes, both of which occur at higher rates in people with depression.
Big bonus: If you are able to add a social component to your walking, it turns this simple exercise into an extremely potent depression treatment. That’s great news for people who don’t want to take medication, want to take less of it, or have taken antidepressants without success. And yet a great many mental health professionals fail to recommend exercise for depression! We’ve made it easy for you with the following action plan.
How long to walk: According to an analysis of studies on walking for depression, the length of time people walked varied quite a bit and often fell below general guidelines for physical activity. The answer? Aim for walking at least 30 minutes a day at least five days a week, and you’ll also meet the fitness recommendations for optimal health, said Susan Besser, MD, a primary care physician with Mercy Personal Physicians in Baltimore. But if that’s too difficult at first, do what feels right. Even five minutes can help give you energy when you’re feeling exhausted from depression.
How often to walk: Walking most days of the week is ideal, but even three times a week was shown to reduce depression symptoms.
How fast to walk: Walking at any pace is helpful and is better than not walking. But to get aerobic benefits, which have the strongest effect on depression, you’ll want to work your way up to four miles per hour—you should be able to have a casual conversation, but not be able to sing or whistle.
A good place: Part of why walking will be so helpful for you if you have depression is that it helps get you out of your own head, Dr. Besser said. Walking in nature—appreciating the beauty of your natural surroundings—can help you achieve this. Walking in an interesting city environment can, too. Whatever your surroundings, the more engaging you find them to be, the better the boost to how you’ll feel both during and after your walks. And of course one way to be engaged is to walk with a friend—or two or three.
For more natural ways to manage depression, check out the video “Supplements for Depression.”