6 Ways Walking Benefits Your Physical and Mental Health
Any (responsible) dog owner will tell you: Nothing boosts your mood quite like a midday stroll with your pooch. But getting away from your computer and giving your mind a bit of rest from the day's work is something that everyone can benefit from — regardless of pet parent status. In fact, walking 30 minutes a day is a simple practice that can promote serious physical and mental advantages.
Whether with a furry companion or solo, mental health and fitness experts agree that walking is good for your health. Ahead, a complete breakdown of all the benefits of walking, and tips on how to add more walking into your daily routine.
Benefits of Walking
You might not even think of walking around as exercise, but make no mistake: Walking boasts serious benefits, including lowered stress and stronger joints. It doesn't have to be a huge time commitment, either, since just walking 30 minutes a day can lead to improvements in your mental and physical health. Plus, walking is one of the most beginner-friendly forms of exercise, and it doesn't require equipment or a gym membership.
Here are just a few great things that walking does for the mind and body:
Works Your Muscles
If you've ever felt soreness from a particularly taxing walk, you know that the activity works your leg muscles. Walking primarily targets your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, notes Reda Elmardi, R.D., C.S.C.S., registered dietician, certified strength and conditioning coach, and founder of the wellness site the Gym Goat.
The muscles on the front side of your legs do a majority of the work when you're walking uphill, says Sharon Gam, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning coach. The muscles on the back side of your legs take charge when — you guessed it — you're meandering downhill. Strengthening these muscles can lead to a domino effect. "When you increase the strength and endurance of your legs, it generally makes it easier to exercise and move around, leading to greater physical activity throughout the day," John P. McCarthy, Ph.D., professor of physical therapy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, previously told Shape. Plus, "you burn more calories overall," he added.
The physical benefits of lacing up for a stroll are real — but so are the mental health benefits, according to psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., founder of Anchor Therapy LLC. "Walking can decrease your stress levels by giving you a break from your daily stressors and helping you become more mindful," she says. (Related: 18 Simple Stress Relievers to Add to Your Mental Health Toolkit)
Strengthens Your Joints
Running, boot camp, and jumping rope are all phenomenal forms of exercise, no doubt about it. The catch? They're all high impact, which means they put a high level of impact on your joints, ligaments, and tendons.
For people who have preexisting soft-tissue injuries, that may be too much force. That's where walking comes into play. "Walking is a great form of low-impact exercise," says Elmardi. Best of all, it's accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels, he says.
Walking isn't just easy on your joints, but it can actually strengthen them too, notes Elmardi. "Walking causes the muscles around the joints to contract and relax, which helps them strengthen and become stronger," he explains. This helps prevent general joint wear and tear, "and it can also reduce pain and stiffness associated with knee osteoarthritis," he says.
Combats Anxiety and Depression
Walking can help relieve anxiety and depression symptoms you might be experiencing, says Glashow. "It can help with anxiety because it helps you focus more on the moment and less about what is causing you anxiety. And it can help with depression because movement gives you endorphins, which lead to happier feelings and thoughts," she explains. Actually, one 2018 study published in the journal Health Promotion Perspectives found that just one 10-minute bout of brisk walking has the power to improve your mood.
To be clear, you should never go off your anxiety or depression medications without talking to a health-care provider first. Consider walking a supplement to — not a replacement for — an overall treatment plan. (Related: How the Overall Stigma Around Psychiatric Medicine Is Forcing People to Suffer In Silence)
Reduces Risk of Heart Issues
Another one of the advantages of walking: It's good for your heart. Walking 30 minutes a day can help reduce the risk of heart attack and disease, according to the American Heart Association. You may be able to reduce your risk of heart issues even further by walking faster, notes Elmardi.
Can Support Weight Loss
"If you're looking for ways to lose weight, walking may be just the thing you need," says Elmardi. In a 2022 study published in Nutrients, overweight women who took a brisk, 30-minute walk five days a week lost nearly two pounds over 12 weeks — without changing their diets.
Admittedly, two pounds in three months may not seem significant to those hungry for fast(er) results. But the findings from this study suggest that walking can play a part in weight loss.
How to Add More Walking Into Your Routine
To reap the most walking benefits from your walks, keep these expert tips in mind.
Take It Outside
No shade to treadmills, but your stroll will have added benefits if you take it outdoors, notes Glashow. "Walking outside can also really help boost your mood because it gives you some vitamin D and helps you feel lighter with the change of scenery," she says. (Related: These Benefits of Hiking Will Make You Want to Hit the Trails)
Try Not to Walk and Work
Some people swear by the walk work meeting, and if you're a fan, you do you. But if you're specifically interested in the mental health perks of walking, use your stroll as a break from the stressors of life, recommends Glashow. "In order to make it a break, you could try focusing on the sights, sounds, smells, etc. around you," she says. Or you could listen to relaxing music or music that puts you in a great mood.
"This could be your self-care time to go for a walk and listen to your favorite podcast, or you can use this time to call a family [member] or friend to catch up when you feel like your daily life becomes too busy to stay in touch, adds Glashow.
Consider Tracking Your Steps
Are you motivated by numbers and stats? Consider investing in a watch that counts your steps (e.g. the Garmin Forerunner 645), says Elmardi. "Some people find that tracking their steps helps them stay motivated to walk regularly," he adds.
Generally, 10,000 steps per day is a solid target to aim for, says Elmardi. "If you are not currently walking 10,000 steps per day, aim to increase your daily step count by 1,000 each week until you're walking 10,000 steps per day," he suggests.
Aim for Moderate Intensity
If walking is your primary form of exercise, pay attention to your heart rate throughout your walk, recommends Gam. "To really reap the health benefits of walking, you should aim for at least a moderate intensity when walking. Moderate intensity means a pace that increases your heart rate and breathing a little," she explains.
There are a few ways to monitor the intensity of your stroll, according to Gam:
- Track your heart rate. For moderate intensity, aim for between 65 and 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. You can estimate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.
- Use a scale of 1–10. On a scale of 1–10, a moderate pace would be about a 3–4 effort, where 10 is as hard as you could possibly push yourself.
- Count steps. Moderate intensity walking is usually at least 100 steps per minute, so you should aim to get about 1,000 steps in a 10-minute walk.
- Try talking. At a moderate intensity, you should feel like you could speak in full sentences but would be too out of breath to sing.
Walk Multiple Times Per Day If Needed
"If you're walking for your health or fitness and keeping a moderate pace, you should try to walk for at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week," says Gam. Can't manage that with your schedule? "You can break that up into shorter walks across the day and get the same benefits," she says.
A brisk 10-minute walk in the morning, a brisk 10-minute walk at lunchtime, and a brisk 10-minute walk in the afternoon, for example, all add up to the same net benefit, according to Gam. So whether you break your walks into small chunks or you carve out time for lengthier strolls, you can count on reaping mental and physical health benefits in the process.