Does Walking Help with Mental Health Problems?

The increasing number of persons affected by obesity, stress, and mental illness is of increasing concern to governments who struggle with the demands placed on the health systems. Strategies to address these issues are areas of active research. A variety of factors play roles in improving mental health.

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The positive correlation between walking or other physical activity and mental health has been long-known by general practitioners and mental health specialists. According to Sports England, the benefits of physical activity on mental health include improved mood, reduced risk of depression and anxiety, and a more balanced way of life.

Furthermore, risks of developing chronic diseases including cardiovascular-related diseases, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis as well as hypertension, depression, and mental health problems are all reduced among people who are physically active.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness can occur in many different forms, but all affect the feeling, thinking, and behavior of a person. Anxiety and depression are the most common types of mental illness. Symptoms of depression include low mood, which lasts for at least two weeks.

Severe depression can be life-threatening as it can lead to suicidal thoughts and attempts. Feeling worried, tense, or afraid, especially when thinking about the future is normal; however, if these thoughts persist, a person may be experiencing anxiety.

Benefits of walking with mental health problems

Can walking really help to overcome these feelings and lead to a normal life?

One qualitative study used interviews and different comparison parameters for the analysis of walking and mental health. This study documented that being physically active plays a major role in the improvement of the quality of life in patients with mental illness.

Furthermore, researchers explain that these activities may be integrated into health regimens. In line with these reports, Sport England stated that with physical activity, stress could be reduced, and a more balanced lifestyle between work and private time can be achieved.

Self-esteem is an important component of mental health. Physical activity can help to boost self-esteem to decrease stress and improve social interactions. Additionally, physical activity is effective in preventing and managing symptoms of depressions. Thus, general practitioners often recommend physical activity alongside medication.

A population-based cross-sectional study by Bertheussen GF. et al. from 2011 used health-related quality of life (HRQoL) to assess the effects of physical activity and mental health directly from the study participants.

This study concluded that exercise is always related to an improvement in mental health when compared to groups who did not exercise at all. This study included 4500 participants from different age groups and showed that improvement in mental health is not age-related, but that anyone can benefit.

Positive effects of physical activity upon depression

A large study that evaluated already published research showed positive effects of physical activity on patients with depression. Many of the studies did not assess fitness. Thus, it was demonstrated that the act of participating in physical activity was an important factor.

Physical fitness level was not the determining factor in mental health. Other researchers have shown in a large study that the absence of exercise is associated with the onset of depression. Several similar studies were carried out, and all concluded that depression improved with walking or exercise.

Can walking improve anxiety?

Although extensive studies have been carried out to measure the impact of walking on depression, the effects on anxiety have been less frequently studied. Furthermore, anxiety can appear in many different forms, making it complicated to interpret study results.

Several studies have, however, indicated that walking and other forms of exercise benefit patients with anxiety. There is some evidence that patients with agoraphobia, who fear certain places or situations, may benefit from cardiovascular exercise as a method of overcoming some of this fear.

In summary, walking has a positive impact on patients suffering from mental health problems. Walking and other exercises can help to improve self-esteem to decrease negative thoughts and improve overall mental well-being. Although it might not be suitable for all types of mental health problems, all studies confirmed that it helps to manage and reduce the symptoms of depression.


Crone, D. 2009. Walking back to health: A qualitative investigation into service users´experiences of a walking project.

Sport England. 2002. Why we invest in mental health?…/.

Robertson, R. et al. 2012. Walking for depression or depressive symptoms: a systematic review and meta-analysis, Mental Health and Physical Activity.

Bertheussen, G.F. et al. 2011. Associations between physical activity and physical and mental health–a HUNT 3 study.

Thirlaway K. and Benton D. 1992. Participation in physical activity and cardiovascular fitness have different effects on mental health and mood. Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

Abu-Omar, K. et al. 2004. Mental health and physical activity in the European Union. International Journal of public health.

Muller, B. and Armstrong, H.E. 1975. A further note on the running treatment for anxiety.

North, T.C. et al. 1990. Effects of exercise on depression.

Orwin, A. 1974. Treatment of situational phobia—a case for running.

Broocks, A. et al. 1998. Comparison of aerobic exercise, clomipramine, and placebo in the treatment if panic disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry.

Strohle, A. 2009. Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders.


Further Reading

  • All Mental Health Content
  • World mental health support and the effect of stigma and discrimination
  • Pollution and Mental Health
  • Mental Health Nursing
  • Treatment Options for Intrusive Thoughts

Last Updated: Nov 7, 2019

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