How to start walking for your mental and physical health

Walking more, whether in nature or closer to home, is good for your physical and mental health. (Getty Images)
Walking more, whether in nature or closer to home, is good for your physical and mental health. (Getty Images)

Everyday, we are learning about how important it is to move our body in order to maintain good physical and mental health. However, modern life means many of us are sitting down for hours at a time and exercising less, which is impacting our overall wellbeing.

Last year, a report from the Office for National Statistics highlighted how sedentary our lives have become. The data showed that Britons spend two hours a day watching TV and more than 45 minutes on our laptops or mobile devices - on top of all the hours spent working at sedentary jobs and commuting.

But when it came to dedicating time to exercise, the figures looked dire, with Britons spending an average of just 20.4 minutes a day on exercise, sports and wellbeing. An average of 10 minutes a day are spent on healthy activities like gardening.

Sitting for long periods of time has been associated with poor health, including joint and back pain and increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. According to the NHS, spending too much time sitting can also affect the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure.

A sedentary lifestyle is also thought to have an impact on mental health and wellbeing. Numerous studies have linked physical exercise to improvements in mood disorders like depression and anxiety, while a lack of movement can lead to poorer mental health.

Upset redhead teen girl sitting by window looking at phone waiting call from boyfriend, feeling sad and depressed teenager looking at smartphone wait for message. Social Media depression in teens
Sitting for long periods of time has been linked to problems such as joint issues, poor posture, depression, and other health issues. (Getty Images)

One of the easiest and most accessible ways to move more is to increase the amount of walking you do on a daily basis.

In order to help you start walking more, we spoke to walking expert Joanna Hall, who leads the coaching programme WalkActive.

Walking is something that most of us do on a daily basis, to get from point A to point B - whether that’s from the sofa to the kitchen, or from your home to the train station, and beyond.

But we often don’t realise how beneficial walking is for our body, Hall says. “Walking can really tap into cognitive wellbeing, in terms of your brain fitness, and benefit your emotional wellbeing as well as your physical wellbeing.

“But people aren’t necessarily excited about walking and we can be a bit dismissive of it. However, it might interest people to know that most of us walk incorrectly.”

Walking forward instead of outward

Hall explains that the body typically takes the “easiest muscle pattern” to take a step forward, which uses the hip flexors - the muscles at the front of the thigh that threads through to the lower back of the spine.

However, sitting down for long periods of time has led our hip flexor muscles to shorten. This causes lower back discomfort and also means our glute muscles are not utilised, forcing us to "pull" ourselves forward.

“When you walk out of your space and utilise your glutes and hamstrings and the posterior chain of the body, you set in effect a much better [muscle] recruitment pattern in your body for your muscles, joints and posture.”

Having a passive foot

Hall says that people tend to walk with a passive foot, which means the foot “comes down as one unit”. But the foot is much more than that, containing 26 bones and plenty of mobility.

“We have so much pliability and movement in the foot,” she adds. “When we learn to walk better and stop having a passive foot, we really utilise the full range of movement in the foot, which helps improve inflammation and circulation.”

Leaning forward

The third mistake people make while walking is leaning forward while doing so, whether it’s because you’re not paying attention to your posture or looking down at your phone.

Hall adds that leaning forward and looking down can affect our mental wellbeing, as it affects “how we perceive the world because we’re looking down rather than actually looking up and around and out”.

Having stiff arms

“The arms tend to move mechanically and we are very stiff with the arms, sometimes we don’t use our arms at all when walking, which means our back also becomes stiff,” Hall explains.

According to Hall, the correct walking technique is more than just putting one foot in front of the other.

Close up of unrecognizable young woman legs ready to run wearing sneakers and tropical leggings with palm trees
Learning how to walk more effectively could be beneficial for our health. (Getty Images)

Hall advises us to imagine your foot being stuck to the floor with velcro. In order to get it off the floor, you have to peel each section of the foot off, starting from the heel.

“This motion of peeling your foot off the floor activates your glutes and hamstrings, and sets off a much better alignment through your feet, knees and hips to safeguard your joints,” she says.

She adds that, by walking more mindfully in this way, our posture is improved. You may also find yourself walking faster because you’re “propelling yourself forward rather than pulling yourself forward”, and it will “significantly reduce the strain on your knees and ankles”.

Walking on a treadmill, whether it’s at the gym or at home, has its benefits and can help you increase your step count if you aren’t able to get out of the house.

These are great ways to walk more, Hall says - however, nothing beats walking outdoors, especially for improving mental health.

“When you go outside, there is a sense of walking away from your troubles,” she says. “If you’ve got a problem, write it down and leave it at the front door. There is something about your environment opening up in front of you and you are walking away from the problem, that can really help lift you and make you feel better.”

From Hissö nature reserve, Växjö
Walking in nature can have a really positive effect on your mental health. (Getty Images)

Being outdoors and walking in nature also provides your brain with “optic flow”, which allows it to wander. “You have the path ahead of you but in your peripheral vision, you also have scenery passing by you, this is called optic flow, which your brain really likes.

“You’re focused on the path ahead of you but you’re also getting all this peripheral information, and that is really great for the brain,” she explains. “When you are static in your home environment or a treadmill, you don’t get some of those benefits.

“But if it is between a choice of walking on a treadmill or not at all, then definitely walk on a treadmill. It’s good to have that as part of your toolbox.”

Getting away into nature for regular walks isn’t always possible. But you don’t have to put pressure on yourself to go on a big walk if you don’t have the time or aren’t ready for it, says Hall. Instead, start closer to home.

“Identify three locations where you spend a lot of time and go to frequently. This might be your desk at home or your office, or picking your kids up from school, or the supermarket car park.

“From these three locations, plan walking routes of different durations to or from them. That’s five minutes in duration, 10 minutes in duration, and 30 minutes in duration.

“This will help you set yourself up for success. Once you have planned those walking routes and the information is at your fingertips, you can fit them in wherever you have time. Maybe you have 10 minutes while waiting for your child to come out of school, or 20 minutes at lunchtime.

“Because you have these routes already available to you, you can just go and walk them, instead of faffing around and wondering where you should go. These are the building blocks to get you started on your walking journey, making it real instead of a concept.”

If you want to go beyond these walking routes and you feel ready to take on a bigger walk, Hall recommends recruiting a walking buddy to choose a destination together and go.

“Make a plan not to speak with your walking buddy until you get together for your walk, so that you’re both excited to see one another and to catch up,” she advises. “This means you can combine the emotional joy of seeing that person with being outside in nature and walking.”

She also recommends searching for walking routes via the National Trust or to look for dog walkers’ routes. “Even if you don’t own a dog, these will be well-trodden paths and usually quite full of nature.”

WalkActive is offering free app access throughout May 2024, to mark National Walking Month. You can learn more about the programme here.

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