Why is walking—or any physical activity, for that matter—such a potent stress reducer? Many experts cite its ability to trigger the release of endorphins, potent brain chemicals that relieve pain and stimulate relaxation. Simply put, the higher your level of endorphins, the greater your sense of calm and well-being. No wonder walking can make you feel so good.
Stroll Toward Relaxation
To reap the stress-busting benefits of walking, you don’t need to pound the pavement or push yourself really hard. In fact, at least one study has shown that a comfortable stroll can be just as effective as a brisk walk. The key is to use your mind while you’re moving your body. (Here are 5 instant stress soothers.)
For the study, researchers recruited 135 volunteers and divided them into five groups. Three of the groups took up walking—one at a brisk pace, the other two at a low-intensity pace. The fourth group practiced mindfulexercise, which is based on the principles and movements of tai chi. The fifth group served as controls—meaning, they were asked not to change anything about their lives.
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In addition, one of the groups assigned to walk at a low-intensity pace learned a simple meditation technique to practice while exercising. All they had to do was pay attention to their footsteps, counting “one, two, one, two” and visualizing each number in their minds as they went along. If they found their thoughts drifting to other matters, they simply said, “Oh, well” and resumed counting their footsteps.
The combination of meditating and low-intensity walking produced dramatic results, according to cardiologist James Rippe, MD, who has written several books on the health benefits of walking. (Looking for awalking workout? Here are 3 new walking workouts to choose from.)
During the 16 weeks of the study, the people who meditated while they walked reported decreases in anxiety, along with more positive and fewer negative feelings about themselves. (Are you stressed, or think you have an anxiety disorder? Here is a test to find out.) In fact, the benefits were equal to those associated with brisk walking. Even better, they were evident after just one session, and they lasted for the duration of the study.
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By comparison, the people who walked at a low-intensity pace but didn’t meditate showed no improvements until the 14th week, and even then, the effects weren’t as significant. On the other hand, the people who engaged in mindful exercise experienced results that were very similar to those reported by the walking-plus-meditation group, suggesting that other mental techniques could yield stress-busting benefits.
According to Rippe, one of the most impressive findings from this research is the immediacy with which walking can relieve stress. The study also provided good news for those who aren’t able to engage in high-intensity exercise: They can capitalize on walking’s stress-busting effects just by practicing meditation or another mental technique during their strolls. And for those who find relaxation exercises tedious or boring, the study proved that a brisk walk can do just as good a job of short-circuiting stress.