Twenty years of research have shown that plain, old garden-variety walking can help you if you have mild or moderate depression. And a recent study allows us to get very specific: More than 11 miles of walking a week (that’s a little more than 1 1/2 miles a day) can turn that frown upside down. One expert has even found that just 10 minutes of walking a day can help.
The reason you can walk yourself into a better mood is suggested by studies done by Robert E. Thayer, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University in Long Beach and the author of The Origin of Everyday Moods (Oxford University Press, 1996). In his research, Dr. Thayer found that a bad mood can have more ingredients than a Julia Child recipe. It can be a mixture of a psychological event or feeling — such as a bad day at work or low self-esteem — as well as how much sleep you’ve gotten, what time of day it is, how healthy you are, your activity level, and whether you smoke or drink alcohol or caffeine.
Dr. Thayer has found that a bad mood becomes depression when tense feelings — so tense that even your muscles tighten up — combine with tiredness. (Think of how dire your life looks when you wake up at 3:00 am, and how much better it all becomes after you’ve gotten enough sleep.) In fact, he says that “a significant decrease in energy may be the most defining characteristic of moderate depression.” Fatigue is one of the symptoms of depression, but Dr. Thayer believes that it’s also a cause.
And how do you boost energy? Through activity. To test his theory, Dr. Thayer used walking “because it fits into most people’s schedules.” He found that as little as 10 minutes of brisk walking can boost energy and reduce tension for up to an hour afterward. You’ll also feel more optimistic, he says.
We asked walking expert Suki Munsell, PhD, founder of Dynamic Walking, and New York-based psychotherapist Sara Denning Abbott, PhD, to help us design a walking program to put the spring back in your step. To get the most out of it, Dr. Thayer suggests that you start with this step: Learn the time of day you’re most energetic and the time that your tension level generally rises. Then plan your walks for your low-energy/high-tension times. Walking at those times can raise your energy to its highest level of the day and bring down the tension.
Your Walking Warmup
Take the time to warm up and cool down at every workout. Start by strolling for 3 to 5 minutes, then stretch key muscles. The key muscles for walking are your calves, quadriceps, and hamstrings. It’s also good to stretch the sides of your torso, shoulders, and arms. Stretch each side evenly. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds during your warmup. At the end of your walk, cool down by walking slowly for 5 minutes, then repeat the stretches, this time holding each stretch a little longer (about 45 to 60 seconds). Here are some smart stretching tips:
- Stretch to the point that you feel tension — not pain — then hold the stretch there.
- Hold a stretch gently and smoothly, without bouncing.
- Stretch both sides of the body evenly.