Can Walking Really Prevent And Treat Depression?

Di Westaway | Founding Director of Wild Women On Top and women’s health expert

Warning: This blog discusses mental health conditions. If this story raises issues for you, help and support is always available at Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 and Lifeline 13 11 14.

2020 has certainly been the year of curveballs and challenges. From bushfires to global pandemics and lockdowns, our resilience is being tested every day in every way.

But the spread of COVID-19 in the community, and Victoria's second lockdown, has raised concerns about another curve. The mental health curve.

To address concerns about the mental health of Australians during coronavirus, both state and federal governments have increased spending in the sector. In Victoria, the state government has announced an additional $60 million will be spent on mental health and 144 extra mental health beds will become available in hospitals in at-risk areas. In New South Wales, the government is also acting by increasing spending on mental health.

Beyond Blue says people are seeking support in 'record numbers' and notes contacts from Victoria have increased since lockdown returned.

We are living through strange, uncertain times. Many of us are seperated from our loved ones and unsure about when we'll be 'back to normal'. Right now, there is one thing that's certain. Community, connection and movement is more important than ever - to feel connected while we're apart and to be healthy, fit and resilient while we're social distancing. 

So, where does walking come in? 

Since the days of Adam and Eve, before the birth of science, human beings have experienced positive feelings from walking. So positive in fact that 2500 years ago Hippocrates, the ‘father of modern medicine’, famously said: “walking is man’s best medicine”. Since then, modern science has categorically confirmed the links between walking and human health.

Walking has been consistently shown to be good for most aspects of human health, including mental health. Studies have shown that exercise can be as effective as medication or talking therapy in treating mild-moderate depression. 

Back in the early 1940’s, American physician and cardiologist Dr Paul White, said: “A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world.”

Most people know this. We feel it. Tonnes of both scientific and anecdotal research proves it. But since then, our lifestyles have changed to such an extent that many of us have pretty much stopped walking.

What’s happened to our health?

While we are contending with coronavirus, we are also experiencing a health crisis of a different kind. Noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, were last year responsible for over 70% of all deaths worldwide (WHO, 2019). And for the first time in history, 90% of Australians are dying from preventable chronic disease.

Technology has allowed us to become sedentary and 70% of spend too much time sitting. This, in combination with many other environmental factors such as nutrition, stress, sleep, pollution, drugs, alcohol, lack of sunlight, loneliness, poverty, social inequality, loss of culture, urbanisation and adverse childhood experiences, has led to what the Lancet Journal calls, “monumental suffering” for many people.

Our sedentary lives are not only harming our bodies and brains, but also our mental health. The World Health Organisation recently described the global state of mental health as a “crisis”. In fact, depression is now the leading cause of disability globally, affecting 300 million people world-wide.

What does the research say?

There’s now a growing body of evidence proving that exercise, especially in nature, is not only good for preventing some mental health issues, but also for treating them. And this evidence now extends to the simplest, cheapest and most accessible forms of exercise: Walking. To stay motivated to walk, some of us need a buddy or a challenge - like the Stayin' Wild Challenge - where the daily goal is to hit 10,000 steps.

Scientific studies show that walking in nature improves mood, productivity, physical and mental health, memory, sleep and sex drive. It also reduces stress, anxiety, lethargy and cognitive decline and can be used to treat anxiety and depression with no negative side effects. In fact, walking just 30 minutes a day can reduce your chance of getting heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, some cancers, some mental illnesses and stress by up to 50%.

So if you are in lockdown, and you can only exercise for an hour a day outside, just a little bit of movement outdoors can do wonders for your health and wellbeing.

So, how does walking prevent and treat depression?

The biology underpinning the antidepressant effects of walking are still unclear, but there are a few hypotheses. We know that depression is associated with chronic inflammation and regular physical activity reduces inflammation. Walking also produces endorphins and dopamine – two great mood-boosting hormones - which improve confidence, self-determination and positive thoughts. And it often takes place in a community, which has also been shown to reduce depression.

According to a meta-study published in the Science Direct journal, “walking has a statistically significant, large effect on the symptoms of depression in some populations, … with few, if any, contraindications.” However, further investigations are needed to establish the required frequency, intensity, duration and type of walking interventions required to best assist those experiencing depression.

Walking is also free, requires no specialised equipment, and doesn't result in any negative side effects or require ongoing, medically supervised personalised dosage assessments, which makes it a great place to start. 

If you or your friend or a family member is experiencing symptoms of depression, its best to seek professional advice from a qualified medicine practitioner in addition to walking.  

If this story has raised issues for you, or you know someone in need of help and support, help is always available at Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 and Lifeline 13 11 14. 

Beyond Blue has launched a specific support service to help Australians manage their mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus pandemic. You can access this service here. You can find out more about Beyond Blue's services, access their helplines, and get immediate support here.

Di Westaway is a Post Graduate student of Lifestyle Medicine with a passion for public health and 45 years experience in the health and fitness industry.

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