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Walking Promotes Mental Health – How to Encourage More Ambling, Strolling, Striding and Hiking in All Communities

This is a guest blog by Tyler Norris, Kate Kraft and Wendy Landman.

When you go for a walk or a roll, you’re not just moving your body from place to place.

Something’s happening to your brain. Your mind clears. As your muscles warm up and your back straightens, your stress lessens. By the time you get where you were going — whether that’s the grocery store, the library, a neighbor’s house or a loop through the neighborhood or a nearby park — you feel better than you did when you started.

Your walk doesn’t have to be brisk to improve your mental state.  Even ambling from room to room in your own house can lighten your mood.

Walking doesn’t just make us feel good while we’re doing it.  Walking, along with other forms of physical activity,  has cumulative, consistent and positive effects on physical and mental health. That includes people with chronic mental health issues, such as major depressive disorders. Exercise, including walking, may prevent depression from ever afflicting someone.  Specifically, walking in nature has been found to lower activity in a part of the brain associated with depression.  There are many benefits to walking and they come at a low cost.  You don’t need equipment or gym membership.

Decades of research have identified design and environmental features that can increase the amount of walking people do as part of their daily lives.  The evidence tells us that people who live in walkable communities are much more likely to get the level of physical activity that is needed to improve mental health and well-being, manage stress and reduce depression.

Encouraging walking and making it equally accessible and safe for all requires investment and planning.  Safe sidewalks, parks, greenways and trails are the primary places where people walk. That makes them critical components of community efforts to promote well-being. Elected officials and state and municipal staff should include efforts to make public space safer, more connected and more attractive as one element of promoting mental health in every community.

These benefits are not universally available.  Historically, investment in public space and safe, walkable communities has not been equal. Specifically, communities of color have been systemically deprived of adequate safety measures, infrastructure and green space. That’s left many Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) without access to conditions that encourage and enable people to safely walk and to reap the many benefits that walking can bestow.  Hundreds of years of systemic racism has intentionally made it difficult, if not impossible, for BIPOC to simply go outside and be safe.

Safe walking in communities of color requires much more than infrastructure investments. The broader social impacts of racism and the inequitable and damaging affects of policing  must also be addressed.  As we promote walking as a tool to improve well-being and mental health, we must be guided by equity, inclusion and anti-racism to make sure that we dismantle the oppression of the past and build the universal well-being of the future so that everyone can benefit from living in walkable communities.

Walkable places and activity-friendly routes have the potential to boost well-being benefits for everyone — but only if we’re intentional about making them available in all places and addressing the social barriers that prevent inclusion and safe passage.

We should remember that  living in unsafe neighborhoods with few resources can, on its own, lead to depression. Building more walkable communities may combat mental illness in more ways than one.

To learn more about the benefits of walking and moving and how to build inclusive walkable communities for all, check out some of these links below: