Anxiety has been with me from a very young age, and it's something I have learned to live with. Everyone says that exercise is helpful for those who struggle with mental health issues but for me, walking offers the most tangible benefits. I can't imagine not going for a stroll when I feel anxiety creeping up in the back of my mind.
Below you'll find not just my personal story and why I chose walking as a means to combat anxiety but also seven tips to get you started and keep you going when you're not feeling all that well, mentally.
Exercise and anxiety: why walking?
I moved to the city when I was 18, and without a car or driving license, I had to get around on foot. 16 years on and despite knowing how to drive by now, I still insist on ‘pounding the pavements’ and enjoying every aspect of walking in the city.
I have always found walking to ground me (pun intended) and help with my overwhelming emotions. Each time my foot lands on the ground, I become more aware of my body, my head starts to become clear, my chest feels less tight. I am almost taking steps out of the thoughts in my head and into a more relaxed and in control state.
I also feel lighter after returning from my daily excursions on the streets. Breathing fresh air, exploring different paths, smiling at strangers and their pets and noticing something new each time you step out – maybe a building I hadn’t seen before or a new piece of graffiti – lifts my mood and helps my body feel relaxed and pleasantly exhausted at the same time.
It's great that our generation now has fitness trackers and running watches to motivate us; the 10,000 steps a day challenge seems to be firmly in our minds, and people are using these devices to create positive changes in their lives, which I think is excellent.
These devices can provide an insight into how much exercise you are doing and monitor your heart rate, which is great for staying on top of your fitness and providing some guidance and goals.
But what these wearables don’t do is acknowledge how you really feel, how much better your mind feels, the warmth in your body and that good tired feeling after you have been for a walk. I firmly believe more fresh air and gentle exercise over a long period of time can really help change your attitude, mental health and energy levels.
Walking for anxiety: 7 tips to get you started
If you are considering walking more to manage anxiety – something I can wholeheartedly recommend – I would like to offer you the below tips as a little welcome gift to the wonderful world of walking. These helped me get started and still help me to this day to walk away from the tension in my body whenever I feel the need to get out and take in the world – one step at a time.
1. Start small
If you are feeling too anxious to leave the house then head to your garden and take a walk there. Take a few deep breaths whilst noticing everything around you. If you don’t have outside space then open your window, breathe and focus on what you can see.
2. Easy does it
Just with any activity, if you go all-in during your first walk, it's all going to come crashing down pretty quickly. Just 10 minutes a day can really make a difference and it's easier to build on this than to feel defeated.
3. Be ready for the elements
Walking can be pleasurable in all weather, just dress appropriately; I can’t stress the importance of feeling comfortable. Wear breathable cotton, layer up and wear waterproofs if needed. Base layers are your friend when the weather is cold outside and you might want to have a pair of walking shoes wrapped around your feet for added support, too.
4. Don’t forget your water
Sometimes I will plan on going for a half-hour walk only to find myself really enjoying it and wanting to stay out longer. Have provisions just in case and a snack. I prefer protein bars as they are energy-dense and taste so good. My current favourite is Grande's Peanut Butter & Jelly bar (opens in new tab) (it tastes like Turkish delight).
5. Be present
Think about how the ground feels beneath your feet, focus on your movement and ask yourself am I holding tension anywhere? If so, can I let it go? What does that feel like?
6. Be grateful
Think about happy moments, listen to the birds singing, breathe in the fresh air. What are you grateful today? Who are you grateful for for being part of your life? Is there anyone who was always by your side when you needed some support?
7. Have an aim in mind
I often add another positive task when I go for a walk. For example, when I need to post a birthday card to a friend, I'll choose a post box 30 minutes away from where I live. Or drop a bag of clothes off at a charity shop somewhere. These small tasks help me to focus my mind on something positive and leave less room for anxiety.
Walking for anxiety: you can do it too
Coping with anxiety can seem like a never-ending cycle of worry and exhaustion, and it can be easy to fixate on this. I am by no means saying walking will make anxiety go away, but it may make you feel a tiny bit better, and it may release a little bit of stress in your body, too. Not to mention the physical benefits!
Whether you suffer from anxiety, are going through a tough time or don’t know how to start with gentle exercise, I hope these small but simple tips can help you move towards a calmer, positive you.
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