Don’t be surprised – walking is the unwritten prescription of many health experts. It gives so many health benefits and prevents you from having fatal chronic diseases, including reducing stress. No wonder why it is deemed a wonder drug. So, do you have a pair of sneakers, a safe road to stroll on and about 15 minutes every day? Because that is what it only takes for you to feel and think good by walking.
Stress: causes, types and signs
The feeling of being burned out and overwhelmed is common for people who are stressed. In 2019, around one-third of people all over the world were considered stressed, worried and angry, and about 284 million people reportedly had an anxiety disorder in 2017 .
While being stressed is inevitable, it becomes even more prevalent today with the different major issues globally – the threat of war, pandemic, inflation and recession. Plus, the never-ending news cycle of crimes, climate change and the perfect world dystopia on social media – there are many things to be stressed about.
There are three (3) types of stress that can negatively impact your body and brain.
- Acute stress – a one-time stressor commonly occurs when an individual has experienced a stressful event. The word ‘acute’ means the symptoms can develop immediately but do not last long. The stressful event encountered are usually very severe, and an acute stress reaction usually happens after an unexpected life crisis.
- Episodic acute stress – when a person experiences acute stress frequently, it becomes episodic. It has a regular pop-up trigger that makes the person experience a roller coaster of stress, like a monthly meeting with your difficult boss. If you have episodic acute stress, you may feel like you are always under pressure and worry about things going wrong. It can be really physically and mentally exhausting.
- Chronic stress – refers to ongoing challenges that impact a person’s day-to-day life and functions, including sleep deprivation or a prolonged illness. It is a consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed every day for a long period of time. Experiencing aches and pains, insomnia or weakness, less socialisation and unfocused thinking are the primary symptoms of chronic stress.
When experiencing stress, you may be put into a fight or flight mode through the hormone adrenaline. Your body also pumps out more stress hormone cortisol, which is a chemical opposite to the hormone melatonin, sleep-promoting hormone melatonin.
Having elevated cortisol levels is bad for your health, as it can directly affect your ability to concentrate, multitask and manage emotions. Over time, it can also contribute to the development of consistent anxiety, leading to digestive issues or overeating, disrupting sleep and causing chronic diseases.
Moreover, there is so-called “good” stress which is referred to as eustress. It basically triggers the same reaction within the body but is considered good. Some instances that may disrupt your feelings include having a baby, getting married, starting a new job, buying a house and exercising . Interestingly, exercise, like walking, can be one of the effective remedies for stress.
How does walking impact stress levels?
Generally speaking, any kind of exercise can be considered a good way to reduce stress. However, take note that exercise itself is already a form of stress; hence, a greater intensity of exercise can cause more stress to your body. Some people may enjoy amped forms of exercise, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), weight lifting and marathon, but among them, walking is much more sustainable.
Walking is easy to do, convenient, affordable and, most especially, effective in promoting health benefits. It also does not stress out your body that much. This physical activity is much more effective in reducing stress when you walk outside rather than on a treadmill in the gym. But, of course, using a treadmill is still a great option whenever the weather is bad, you are in a hurry or your outdoor environment is unsafe for walking.
Research says that you can amplify the stress-relieving benefits of exercise if you take it outside. In 2020, a group of researchers revealed that performing physical activity in nature can substantially improve mental well-being, and walking for 10 minutes or just simply sitting in nature can lower stress levels and improve one’s mental health .
Green exercise can even further boost the health benefits you can get from walking. It is a great way to unwind with your clouded or overwhelmed thoughts when you are under stress. You may experience fresh air and peaceful sceneries and acquire a much wider view of your stressful situation.
Walking indoors or outdoors can generally help you manage stress, lower anxiety, decrease depression, enhance emotional health, support cognitive function, boost mental alertness and improve overall mental health. It allows certain areas of your brain to activate and some other areas to relax to promote positive changes in your mental state, resulting in reduced stress and improved mood.
It is like having a seesaw effect where you have a ‘stress metre’ and a ‘walking metre’ in your body. When your stress metre fills up, the negative consequences of stress start to appear and accumulate. The seesaw becomes imbalanced, and your stress levels become higher. As you fill your walking metre, the stress metre can then slowly and gradually lower.
Incorporating walking into your lifestyle has positive long-term benefits for your body. This includes lowered risk for cognitive decline, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and heart problems. A 2018 research study suggests that a single 10-minute brisk walk has the potential to improve one’s mood .
The best walking plan to reduce stress
With its immediate and long-lasting effects on your mental health, walking may be your next best friend. Just by walking for 20 minutes, your cortisol levels can be lowered already, leading to an enhanced mood and acquiring a more positive outlook.
To start your walking journey, it is a great idea to have a walking plan as you need to add it to your everyday life. Sticking with the walking plan can help you feel more energized and less stressed and experience quality sleep.
Walking at an appropriate intensity to maximize both mental and physical health benefits is essential. Health experts recommend walking at an intensity that you can still talk but not sing. Although walking on a low-intensity or leisure stroll may have positive effects on your mental health, you can further maximize your time and effort by walking a little faster, but don’t overdo it as you may introduce more stress into your body.
If you can have a 30-minute walk five times per week, this is better as it can generally help you with stress and boost wellness. The idea is you should create a routine where your goals are feasible, attainable, impactful and measurable for you. Starting small is okay, too. You can have about 15 minutes of walking a few times per week.
The following is also what health experts suggest , but it is advisable to check with your physician before starting:
|Week 1||Beginner’s Level|
|Tuesday and Wednesday||Do a low-intensity walk for 15 minutes.|
|Friday and Saturday||Do a low-intensity walk for 15 minutes.|
|Sunday||Increase your time walking by 5 minutes so that it will be 20 minutes.|
|Week 2||Beginner’s Level|
|Tuesday and Wednesday||Continue with a low-intensity walk for 20 minutes.|
|Friday and Saturday||Try walking briskly at a 3 to 3.5-mph pace and walking a mile in 20 minutes.|
|Sunday||Walking briskly at a 3 to 3.5-mph pace and walking a mile in 25 minutes.|
|Week 3||Beginner’s Level|
|Tuesday and Wednesday||Walking briskly at a 3 to 3.5-mph pace and walking a mile in 25 minutes.|
|Friday and Saturday||Walking briskly at a 3 to 3.5-mph pace and walking a mile in 25 minutes.|
|Sunday||Walking briskly at a 3 to 3.5-mph pace and walking a mile in 30 minutes.|
|Week 4||Beginner’s Level to Intermediate Level|
|Tuesday and Wednesday||Walking briskly at a 3 to 3.5-mph pace and walking a mile in 30 minutes.|
|Friday, Saturday and Sunday||Aim for a pace of 3.5 to 4.5 mph within 13 to 17 minutes per mile and walk 3 miles in about 45 minutes. |
If you find yourself in good shape, you can start at the intermediate level. If not, you can continue here after the 4th week of the beginner’s level and follow: walk briskly at a 3 to 3.5-mph pace and walk a mile in 30 minutes.
Of course, walking is not enough to reduce your overall stress strategy plan. You should pair it with a healthy diet, such as fruits and vegetables, to gain nutrients. Adding some meditation to relieve stress is also recommended, and asking for help from family and friends won’t hurt as well.
However, if you find yourself having difficulty in coping with problems, keeping up with daily activities, feeling like the activities you used to enjoy are lacklustre, experiencing constant severe anxiety, prolonged sadness, depression, apathy, extreme mood swings, anger, hostility or violent behaviour, having thoughts of suicide, misusing substances like alcohol or cigarettes, finding yourself with some drastic difference in personality and changing eating or sleeping patterns – you should immediately seek help from a professional mental health expert.