The feeling of sand between your toes and grass under your feet as you walk without shoes on is something that Kit Klien, founder of Surf Coast walking group Walk With Women, knows all about.
For some people, walking is a way to keep fit and help lose weight, for others it’s a way to deal with their mental health conditions.
A 2019 research report from Vic Health found that walking has been linked to a range of mental health benefits, including decreasing anxiety and depression.
Klien first created the Walk With Women group about four years ago when she began feeling unsafe while out walking in the coastal region.
“Locals weren’t feeling safe. I personally didn’t feel safe, it’s isolating and as a woman you shouldn’t have to feel unsafe,” Klien said.
She soon discovered that walking with others had another benefit: “Walking in a group is a collective experience. You get to talk to someone, so it’s good for people who are living in isolation.” She describes walking with others in her group as “walk-and-talk therapy”.
Victoria Walks is a health promotion organisation based in Victoria aimed at encouraging more people to walk for all types of reasons including recreational, incidental and transport related.
Duane Burtt, the principal policy advisor for Victoria Walks, talks about the difference between walking alone and walking in a group.
“If you’re walking in a group, that brings additional benefits in terms of mental or social connection essentially. Being out with other people, having a conversation is certainly good for your mental health,” Burtt said.
Walking can be beneficial when done alone too. It can help those feeling stuck on a project or who need to take a break from something, such as study or working from home. It can help those trying to come up with a new idea or those who are looking for inspiration.
“A lot of great artists and writers and people like that have walked alone as a way of getting inspiration and developing creativity, and helping them to write or create art,” Burtt said.
Klein also sees pros and cons to both walking alone and walking in a group. “It depends on what the person needs at the time,” she said. “I love walking on my own, I just love having my own time. But then there’s other times where I like walking with other people because I get to share conversation.”
Mood Active is a community network running exercise programs to improve people’s mental health as well and encourage GPs and psychologists to prescribe exercise as a treatment option for mood disorders.
Naomi Blair, Mood Active’s program manager, says walking in groups – or supervised exercise as she refers to it – “has the benefit of reducing anxiety and depression at a minimum of three times a week over four-to-12 weeks.”
“Exercise can give you more energy, exercise can help you sleep, exercise can help balance hormones and the effects of medication as well … there’s a whole range of mental health benefits, and just in-general benefits for your lifestyle as well,” Blair said
Covid 19 has seen an increase in those suffering from mental health issues and feeling isolated due to ongoing restrictions.
Mood Active was forced to relocate its exercise groups to an online program due to the pandemic, to support those who were struggling.
“They’re looking for something to do, and our program offers extra motivation and accountability and support,” Blair said, following an increase in people reaching out after loosing their daily routines.
A report released by the Better Health Chanel claims that the benefits of social connections include a reduced risked of depression and anxiety, more trusting and cooperative relationships, and higher self-esteem, however loneliness and isolation can also lead to disrupted sleep and elevated blood sugar.
Klein says people should walk without headphones to connect with the environment and walk consciously.
“Tune in, take notice of the interactions, of what’s going on around you and it’s just amazing what you learn when you observe the natural world on a walk, and you don’t feel alone because you see everything else that’s living around you,” she said.
“Walking with families, taking the kids on a walk every day and it might be a nightly routine after dinner or before dinner or first thing in the morning, when you do a walk, and you notice what’s in my community. Not just people, there’s a whole life going on around you that’s fascinating, and that’s good for your mental health because you don’t feel alone, and you feel connected to the bigger world.
Healthline Victoria says exercise stimulates the release of dopamine, a mood enhancing hormone, into the brain.
Burtt says: “physical activity and exercise are useful for improving people’s mental health as it has a physiological effect which has been beneficial for mental health. But also, there’s a mental health benefit from being out in nature, or being outside, which also brings benefits for people and mental health.”
Research conducted by Victoria Walks around the reasons young people were walking found “when it came to going out for a walk for recreation, it was not so much about physical activity, but their mental health,” Burtt said.
Research by Walking for Health UK suggests that physically active people reduce their risk of depression by up to a 30 per cent, and can better recover from illness.
“If you’re walking every day, it prevents you from getting poor mental health, but it is also great for physical health and spiritual health,” Klien said.
Often people question the type of exercise that is most beneficial for mental health. “There is no specific exercise recommended to boost mental health, however it does need to elevate your heart rate” Blair said. “That could be a really brisk walk, not dawdling down to the shops … a cardio exercise, or resistance training, there’s quite a variety of things that people can do in order to get that movement.”
Klien links walking in nature with spiritual health. “One of the things that happens when we walk, not just the talking or engagement with other women, but we’re looking out to the ocean, we’re noticing birds, we’re noticing wildlife that we might come across. So, it increases our connection to the natural world.”
A survey conducted by AusPlay, an organisation led by Sport Australia to help the sector understand participation, found that walking was the most popular form of lockdown exercise.
“During Covid and obviously with being limited to 5km at times or 10km, people have been out and about exploring their neighbourhoods more and looking for places to walk,” Burtt said
Walking for Health says walking is also beneficial for older adults as it can improve cognitive function, memory attention and reduce the symptoms of dementia.