Wouldn’t it be great if we could just walk off mental illness?
“Oh, just go walk it off,” the saying goes.
There's some truth to the popular adage.
Study after study has linked physical activity including walking to better mental health. These studies always catch my eye because I am an avid walker. I recommend walking to everyone. It’s a delightful hobby for many reasons.
I am diagnosed with several mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, chronic-complex post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. I have found that when I am in phases where I’m walking daily, I sustain good mental health.
Several recent studies affirm my love for the daily walk (two or three walks daily is even better when it’s nice outside). A study released this month in JAMA Psychiatry shows a connection between high body mass in children and depression later in life, for example.
For some, activity worsens symptoms
A JAMA Psychiatry research letter published in December reminds us that some studies have shown a protective effect against schizophrenia from physical activity. So, it was surprising the study did not find a protective effect, and in fact concluded physical activity could increase schizophrenia risk in children.
An accompanying editorial classified it as just another piece of inconsistent research on the topic. It hinted the researchers did not fully compare whether conditions such as obesity contributed to mental pathologies.
Body type was self-reported. “It is essential that the associations reported by (the researchers) are also interpreted through the lens of biological plausibility, which thereby warrants further discussion into the mechanistic links between physical activity/exercise, body composition, and schizophrenia,” wrote Brandon Yates.
Yates is from the Indiana Center for Musculoskeletal Health at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
‘Walking on Sunshine’ makes you feel good
Meantime, other research walks the walk when it comes to linking physical activity and mental health.
In the famed “Walking on Sunshine” study appearing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the researchers called for national guidelines to “promote the known mental health benefits of increased walking.”
“Walking on Sunshine: Scoping review of the evidence for walking and mental health” made me smile. Even the title illustrates the scope of the benefits of walking: Not only do walkers get aerobic benefits, but if they walk outside, they get fresh air and sunshine. Those natural benefits also have been shown to improve mental health.
The Walking on Sunshine study called for more research to fill in knowledge gaps regarding the psychological benefits of walking. The study did not find any harmful mental health effects from walking.
Depressed people stand to gain the most from walking, the researchers concluded. Results varied for those with anxiety and psychological stress.
The paper was a meta-analysis of other studies. In other words, it analyzed previous research. “The evidence base that suggests walking benefits mental health is growing, but remains fragmented and incomplete for some important outcomes,” the researchers concluded.
High insulin, BMI in kids linked to psychosis, depression
In a study, children with high insulin levels experienced higher rates of psychosis but not depression. Those with high body mass index experienced depression but not psychosis.
“Disrupted insulin sensitivity could be a shared risk factor for comorbid cardiometabolic disorders and psychosis,” the authors concluded. “A puberty-onset major increase in BMI could be a risk factor or risk indicator for adult depression.”
The original investigation appeared in JAMA Psychiatry. Other studies have linked schizophrenia and high insulin levels as well as high body mass index and depression. This was the first study to see whether it begins in childhood.
The study followed more than 10,000 subjects from ages 1 to 24. Researchers adjusted for comorbidities such as cardiovascular risk, social class, and risks such as smoking.
Take a walk today for better mental health
With all the mental health and physical benefits surrounding walking, you would think people would do it more often. Instead, Americans are becoming lazy, too content to keep their noses glued to electronic devices.
Walking and texting is hazardous. You could run into a tree.
I encourage everybody to go outside and take a walk today, especially if it’s nice outside. Walk for 30 minutes. Look around and enjoy the scenery. Smile at others and say “hello.”
Turn your phone off for just 30 minutes. You can do it.
My doctor says I need to walk “every day there is not a blizzard.”
Bask in the sunshine during a walk outside
Of course, you can’t always walk outside every day, especially in the winter. My problem is I don’t like exercising inside.
Taking your medications as prescribed is critical to good mental health. You can't always just walk your way to good mental health, even though walking is very good for you.
With my PTSD, when I tried to work off frustration with intense aerobic activity in a gym, I started producing the stress hormone cortisol. I even gained weight.
But walking briskly outside makes me happy in addition to the physical benefits of a workout. In beautiful Denver, where I live, I walk at a park just a block away. It is a large greenspace with a walking track encircled with mature pines.
In Denver we have sunshine more than 300 days of the year, so I always am basking in the light when I walk. The air is light and crisp, seldom burdened with humidity.
And it never really gets that cold here. I grew up in the Midwest. It was a sweltering swamp in the summer and a frozen tundra in the winter. Lots of bad walking days.
Denver is the perfect place for an avid walker to live. The mile-high city is a highly walkable city.