Happy feet: Group nature walks may lower stress

Oct. 13, 2014—Take a walk on the wild side with a few friends, and chances are you’ll come out of the green in a happier mood. That’s because group walks in nature don’t just improve cardiovascular health; they also appear to relieve depression and perceived stress according to a large-scale study published in the journal Ecopsychology.

The wisdom of walking with others

The research was based on online questionnaires completed by 1,991 men and women who participated in the Walking for Health program based in England. This program facilitates nearly 3,000 walks each week, bringing together more than 70,000 regular walkers a year.

Of the 1,516 men and women whose questionnaires were deemed valid for the researchers’ final analysis, 1,081 had participated in group walks in nature while 435 had walked, but not in groups.

Researchers found that men and women who had recently experienced stressful life events—such as a serious illness, the death of a loved one, unemployment or a marital separation—felt a mood boost after walking outdoors with other people. On average, those who attended group walks in nature reported:

  • Significantly lower depression
  • Less perceived stress
  • Greater mental well-being

Before this study, little formal research had been done to evaluate positive mental well-being as a potential outcome of group exercise. You can read the study here.

 

The take-home message
Walking can be moderate-intensity exercise that’s inexpensive and safe for many*. All you need to get started is a pair of sturdy walking shoes. And hoofing it for at least half an hour on five days every week has more benefits than you can shake a walking stick at, including:

  • Strengthening your heart and reducing your risk for coronary artery disease.
  • Improving your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
  • Helping you maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Reducing your risk for breast and colon cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
  • Easing your mind.
  • Getting your creative juices flowing—especially if you do it outdoors.

People who walk in groups are more likely to stick with the exercise. So for regular physical activity that busts stress, sparks new ideas and gets your heart pumping, grab a friend or two and find a safe place to walk and enjoy nature.

Don’t have a sole-mate? Check for local walking groups at www.mywalkingclub.org, or meet people at a charity walking event.

To help you on your journey, here are some more tips and info on how to start walking toward better health.

If walking doesn’t chase away a particularly bad case of the blues—or if you’re concerned about other mental health issues—discuss treatment options with your primary care provider. You can also explore your symptoms with Mental Health America’s screening tool.

 

*Men over age 40 and women over age 50 should consider talking to their doctors before embarking on a new exercise program.

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