I LOVE WALKING. Truly. I aim to walk 10,000 steps every day (give or take 1000) and will often end up on a hike that pushes me past that. Walking is something that I believe has really helped me move from being in a lot of pain and more ill, to being in remission. It’s not the only factor of course, but it is a very big part of my lifestyle. The easy part for me is that I actually enjoy walking. I’d rather walk than take transit (if I’m going somewhere “walkable” – 45 minutes or less). I even have friends that live nearby – transit takes 30 minutes to get there, walking takes 35 – easy answer for me. That being said, I know that not everyone actually enjoys walking. However, if you can get yourself to do it (or any other mild to moderate exercise), especially if you have pain, you also might start to see the benefits.
There is a lot of researching showing that the greatest benefits of exercise, including walking, on chronic pain are mid- to long-term. So we can’t expect immediate results (as with many things). These benefits include reduction in pain, improvement in quality of life, less fear avoidance, and a decrease in disability. Some of the reasons that these results occur are due to movement promoting healthy nutrition of the cartilage (connective tissues) in our body, and engaging with the endogenous opioid system and other parts of the brain known to decrease pain. Basically all of our bodies natural pain killers are activated, which I think is pretty cool. Walking and exercise also decrease stress, and stress is a trigger of chronic pain and illness flares for many people.
As far as mental health goes, in addition to decreasing stress, study after study shows that walking and especially aerobic exercise (like jogging) can decrease anxiety and depression/improve mood. There are some other benefits such as improving self-efficacy (our belief that we can do things), improving social interaction (especially when walking with others), increasing our self-esteem (we feel better about ourselves), improving our overall cognitive functioning (memory, concentration, etc.), and improving sleep (being outdoors and exercising are both on sleep hygiene recommendations). A benefit that is good for both physical and mental health is weight reduction – though this certainly doesn’t have to be the goal/intent. There are a few reasons all of this happens: walking and exercise can serve as distraction from thoughts and feelings, and I think more importantly, it gets a lot of those natural happiness boosters activated, like serotonin.
Of course, make sure you talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise plan, including walking (and your physio/physical therapist, etc. as well). Start slowly and work your way up – even if this means just walking around the block once! Make sure you have comfortable shoes, possibly a friend to go with, and water to drink. And try to make it fun! Take different routes, listen to music or a podcast, or try some mindful walking. With all the benefits, it’s worth at least giving it a shot so that we can all keep on making the most of it!