In Prince William’s December podcast for the Apple Fitness+, Time to Walk series he says that walking provides him with “an opportunity to clear my head and gain some perspective”. “It’s a key part of how I manage my mental health,” he says.
Over the course of a 38-minute stroll around the royal family’s 20,000-acre Sandringham estate, we join him in a meandering conversation that flows from memories of his mother, to his own challenges with mental health as an air ambulance pilot to the joy he experiences in being with his children. By the end of the ramble and the chat I felt surprisingly connected to someone I will never meet and definitely more relaxed than when I started the walk. Prince William has realised what science is now proving, that walking is one of the most effective ways to improve our state of mind.
There is good reason walking makes us feel good. Credit:iStock
According to a study published in Lancet Psychiatry that analysed data over four years from 1.2 million people in the United States, individuals who exercise had 43 per cent fewer days of bad mental health during the previous month compared to those who did not exercise.
So, what’s going on? What is it about walking in particular that has such a positive effect on us?
When we look at the psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry that develop when we put one foot in front of another, we discover very powerful reasons behind those great feelings.
Firstly, walking increases levels of “feel good” chemicals in our brains. We see a rise in the release of endorphins; a group of peptide hormones that relieve pain and create a general sense of wellbeing. And there is an increased flow of particular neurotransmitters, these are the body’s chemical messengers; used by the nervous system to transmit messages between neurons in the brain or between the brain and the muscles. Going for a stroll increases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, anandamide and norepinephrine which help create a more open and spacious mindset.
Walking promotes our sense of empathy. This is because when we walk we activate the right supramarginal gyrus, this is the area of the brain involved in proprioception – our ability to understand where we are in space – and without it we would randomly bump into objects and have no capacity to navigate. But the supramarginal gyrus is also the part of the brain activated when we empathise with others. Walking inadvertently opens us up to people and their ideas, and knowing we are not alone – being able to more easily connect to people around us – can help break the rumination that sometimes accompanies challenging mental states.
Putting one foot in front of the other is what us Homo sapiens were built to do. For 4 million years, since our earliest ancestors began walking our bodies and minds have developed around this simplest form of locomotion. Walking for most of that history was the vehicle through which we provided for ourselves through hunting and gathering, and when we walk our bodies remember that this is what we are meant to do, it is our default mode; moving on two feet, not sitting in front of a screen, is what we are best at. Everyone with the physical capacity is an expert in bipedalism, and any time we feel we are experts our confidence increases and our mental health improves.
Walking also has an incredible ability to reduce stress. Dr Stan Rodski, clinical psychologist and neuroscientist has said, “If I were to summarise all of my learning over 40-odd years, I’d say that most people’s stress starts with the complaint: I don’t have enough time”. And walking radically changes our relationship with time. Firstly, walking lowers our brain wave frequency from the beta region to the high theta range – the theta wave between 5-10 Hz is the frequency we enter when we meditate, and this promotes an expansive, less time-dependent mindset.
Secondly, as I’ve mentioned, the flow of neurotransmitters in the brain changes to create a more open and spacious mindset. Time becomes less rigid, it slows down and moves in a less chronologically-regulated way.
Thirdly, after 30 to 40 minutes of walking the activity of our brain’s prefrontal cortex diminishes and we drop into a flow state. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the world leader in flow research, noted over the 8000 interviews his team conducted with highly successful people that the vast majority of participants observed that when they entered flow they lost their sense of self – but also their sense of time. When we lose time we lose stress.
Walking is an activity imbued with joy; we only have to look at a toddler taking their first steps, they fall down and get back up again and when they finally link those footsteps together and make that first self-powered journey the look on their faces is one of ecstasy, achievement and hope. Prince William is absolutely right, walking is one of the simplest and most effective ways to manage our mental health.
Jono Lineen is the author of Perfect Motion: How Walking Makes Us Wiser
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