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Walking and Moderate Exercise Boost Your Mental and Physical Health

“Thoughts come clearly while one walks.” – Thomas Mann

Walking is an easy form of exercise that provides a long list of benefits for improved mental and physical health. It is also free, which adds to its immense appeal. You can walk anywhere at almost any time, indoors or out, by yourself or with others. Yet, how often do we recognize the incredible value of the simple act of walking? Even if we do give it some thought now and then, it might be worthwhile becoming familiar with research on how walking and moderate exercise boost your mental and physical health.

Go Aerobic for Antidepressant Effects

A 2018 review published in Depression and Anxiety found benefits from aerobic exercise for clinically depressed adult patients. The meta-analysis compared aerobic exercise versus nonexercised comparators. Aerobic exercise in various studies included running on a sport track, stretching and running in place, brisk walking/jogging, cardio fitness machine, cycling/treadmill. Study findings showed a “significant large overall antidepressant effect” on adult patients recruited via mental health services with either a referral or clinical diagnosis of major depression. Also, subgroup analyses found that aerobic exercise brought about large or moderate to large depression improvement in many different delivery formats: equipment-based or equipment-free modalities, outpatient or inpatient cohorts, in or outside a hospital setting, indoors or outdoors, and individually or in groups. Researchers concluded that aerobic exercise is an effective antidepressant intervention.

Aerobic Exercise Can Be Beneficial in Cocaine Addiction Treatment

Cocaine addiction is characterized by cycles of relapse and recovery, with negative emotions and stress that often occur during withdrawal a key factor in relapse. Researchers at the University at Buffalo in a 2018 study using animal models found that regular aerobic exercise (5 days/week, 1 hour at a time) decreased cocaine-seeking behavior induced by stress. Exercise can alter the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine pathway (linked to the reward/reinforcing properties of addictive drugs like cocaine), as well as reduce stress and elevate mood – both key in reducing anxiety and negative emotions during withdrawal. The research team concluded that aerobic exercise could be an effective part of cocaine relapse prevention program, and said further research is necessary to see if the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise hold true for other addictive drugs. Findings were published in Behavioral Brain Research.

Physical Activity Protects Against Depression

In a report published in JAMA Psychiatry, a team of investigators from Massachusetts General Hospital found evidence to strongly support physical activity as a preventive measure against depression. Researchers said that doing more of any physical activity is better than none, suggesting that their rough calculations indicated replacing sitting for 15 minutes with running or an hour of moderately vigorous activity was enough to show an average increase in accelerometer data linked to a lower risk for depression. They said their findings support the hypothesis that engaging in enhanced physical activity may serve as effective prevention strategy for depression.

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Physical Exercise Promotes Irisin, Hormone that May Protect Against Alzheimer’s Disease

Besides endorphins released during vigorous workouts, there’s another hormone that is released into circulation during physical activity. Researchers at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain found that irisin, which previous research showed played a role in energy production, may promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus. In mice studies, irisin was released during swimming, and the animals’ brain synapses and memory were protected. Their findings suggest that irisin could be useful in developing novel ways to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in humans. They said that development of pharmaceutical drugs containing irisin could benefit older individuals who may have age-related conditions preventing them from physical exercise. For everyone else, researchers encourage exercise to promote brain function and overall health. The study was published in Nature Medicine.

Exercise May Help Fight Depression in Seniors

In a study published in the American Journal of Physiology, researchers at McMaster University found for the first time that physical exercise may help fight depression in seniors by stimulating muscle-generated mood boosters. The study included healthy men aged 65 and older and involved 12 weeks of high-intensity interval training on a stationary bike once a week, combined with strength-training sessions biweekly. Analyzing blood samples and changes to muscle, researchers found that three months of exercise enhanced gene expression in the skeletal muscle. Since muscle loss is common among older individuals, and such loss of muscle may restrict the metabolic pathways promoting mood-boosting chemicals in the brain,  thus potentially leading to depression, increasing exercise to stimulate muscle-generated mood enhancers may help ward off depression.

Exposure to Nature Benefits Mental Health

In a videocast from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Gregory Bratman discussed the benefits of exposure to nature for mental health. The healing power of nature exposure, he said, is evident from numerous studies with groups exposed to nature or urban settings — whether it be in gardens, green space or horticultural settings, or religious or traditional experiences. Dr. Bratman’s consensus is that exposure to nature may improve mood, reduce anxiety, and even improve cognitive function. Finding ways to incorporate exposure to nature in today’s increasingly urban society is important to overall mental health and well-being.

Older Women Who Walk More Can Reduce Heart Failure Risk

A study from the University at Buffalo of more than 139,000 postmenopausal women aged 50 to 79 showed that walking can significantly lower heart failure risk in older women. Besides reducing overall heart failure risk by 25 percent, walking also benefited two heart failure subtypes: reduced ejection fraction (typically with the worst prognosis), and preserved ejection fraction (common in older adults, especially women. Researchers said that increasing physical activity 30-45 minutes a day is associated, on average, with a risk reduction of 9 percent, 8 percent, and 10 percent, respectively, for overall heart failure, reduced ejection fraction, and preserved ejection fraction, respectively. According to the researchers, preventing heart failure development by promoting increased levels of physical activity, specifically walking, later in life can perhaps reduce the overall burden of heart disease on an aging society.

15 Minutes of Exercise Can Help You Master a New Skill

McGill University researchers demonstrated that exercise promptly after practicing a new motor skill helps with long-term retention. Their study showed specifically that as little as a single bout of cardiovascular exercise for 15 minutes boosts brain connectivity and efficiency. This finding could be important for those in recovery following a stroke or those who have mobility problems after an injury. Next, researchers will look at how sleep interacts with exercise to optimize consolidation of motor memories.   

Walking and Moderate Exercise Boost Your Mental and Physical Health

Suzanne Kane

Suzanne Kane is a Los Angeles-based writer, blogger and editor. Passionate about helping others live a vibrant and purposeful life, she writes daily for her website, She is a regular contributor to Psych Central. You can reach her at

APA Reference
Kane, S. (2019). Walking and Moderate Exercise Boost Your Mental and Physical Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Feb 2019 (Originally: 15 Feb 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Feb 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.