Walking Your Way to Emotional Balance

January 18, 2021

Walking is the very best form of exercise and a neurological tonic, experts say.

n 2007, author Nita Sweeney suffered one devastating loss after another. That year, seven of her close friends and family members died.

Sweeney already struggled with chronic depression and bipolar disorder. But with so many loved ones passing away in such a short period of time, she fell to new depths, both mentally and physically.

“I was just emotionally paralyzed, and I started to gain a lot of weight,” she said. “I was in such bad physical shape that even walking around the block was kind of a stretch.”

Sweeney finally climbed out of her despair by putting one foot in front of the other. From 2007 to 2017, she went from barely being able to get out of bed, to walking every day and clocking many miles per week. Today, she walks alone, with her husband, in groups, with her dog, and whenever or wherever she finds an opportunity.

She says the rhythm of walking heals her.

“I don’t know the science, but I know that there is something that happens when I feel the sway and rhythm of my body and my arms swing,” she said.

This feeling has carried Sweeney through three full marathons, 26 half marathons, and more than 60 shorter races. Her running is slow (and mixed with lots of walking), but Sweeney isn’t driven by speed, medals, or even physical fitness. For her, it’s a “mental health journey.”

In her upcoming book, “Depression Hates A Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back From the Brink,” Sweeney describes how she was able to find emotional balance one step at a time.

“I know there are physical benefits. When I stop walking, I gain weight. When I walk again, I lose it. It’s that simple,” she said. “But for me, it’s more emotional than physical. There is something about slowing down to the pace of the walk, that lets things drop away in a way that they don’t with other exercise.”

There is evidence to validate Sweeney’s experience. Studies have shown that walking can relieve depression, reduce anxiety, and boost our creative and cognitive function.

When you add in the proven physical benefits that come from walking, it almost sounds too good to be true. The 2015 report from Harvard Medical School titled, “Walking for Health: Why this Simple Form of Activity Could Be Your Best Health Insurance,” discusses solid science that shows walking can lower your blood pressure, fight heart disease, reduce the risk for Type 2 diabetes, and help you lose weight.

Walking for Peace of Mind

It’s clear we don’t walk as much as we used to. In the past, we had no choice. Unless you owned a horse or canoe, walking was the only way to get around. With the rise of cars and a growing distance between home and work, walking for more than a short distance has become quaint, almost obsolete. It’s no longer a reasonable option when you have places to go and people to see.

Modern transit allows us to cover far more ground in less time. But while walking may not be practical for daily travel, it could help us better handle our hectic schedules.

One reason walking has become a priority for Sweeney is that it helps her work off anxiety.

“It’s a way for me to calm down,” she said. “I just need a little bit of the rhythm, not much, but I just feel better.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly says that, psychologically speaking, “walking is simply amazing.” She points to research proving that walking as little as 12 minutes can elevate your mood for several hours.

“When we walk, we are actually able to leave our troubles behind on physical and metaphorical levels,” Manly said. “The psychological freedom that comes with walking can create an inner spaciousness and healing that is beyond compare.”

Manly observed walking’s healing power when she worked with juveniles on probation. She would often do “walk and talk” therapy with these kids, and saw them thrive with the sense of freedom that walking delivers.

“Their troubles and issues felt less pressing when they were outside walking with me,” she said. “Adults can benefit in the same way.”

Manly takes her own medicine. Her mornings always begin with a walk in a nearby park. If there’s a break in her client schedule, she’ll grab another five- to 10-minute walk around the block to clear her head and move her body.

“For me, a day without a walk is like a day without water.”

The Best Exercise

We all know we should move more, but we may dismiss walking because it seems far too basic to be a viable or effective fitness option. It doesn’t seem to provide enough of a challenge to make a difference.

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