Exercise like walking has been shown to relieve the symptoms of depression. Clinical depression is defined as sadness that is greater and more prolonged than is warranted by any objective reason. It is characterized by withdrawal, inactivity, dullness, and feelings of helplessness and loss of control.
For many people suffering from clinical depression, regular exercise (three times a week or more appears to work best) has been shown to act as a mood elevator.
Doctors, it seems, are convinced by the evidence in favor of using exercise to treat depression. In a survey of 1,750 doctors, 85 percent reported that they prescribed exercise -- including walking -- for treating depression (and 60 percent prescribed exercise to treat anxiety).
The NIMH panel on the effects of exercise on mental health concluded that long-term exercise reduces depression in people who are moderately depressed. In those who are severely depressed, exercise appears to be a useful addition to professional treatment, including psychotherapy, medication (combining exercise with antidepressant medication demands close medical supervision), and electroshock.
In a University of Wisconsin study, exercise even appeared to be as effective as psychotherapy at relieving moderate depression. People with moderate depression were randomly assigned to either psychotherapy or exercise programs. After a year, over 90 percent of the people who had been assigned to the exercise program were no longer depressed. Half of the patients in the psychotherapy group, however, had come back for more treatment.
Why is walking helpful in the treatment -- and perhaps even the prevention -- of depression? Following any exercise program, including walking, gives participants a sense of self-reliance, self-mastery, power, and control because they are getting out and doing something for and by themselves, says Robert S. Brown, M.D., Ph.D., clinical associate professor of behavioral medicine and psychiatry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Exercise gives people a real opportunity to set and achieve goals and to see and measure personal improvement. One way to enhance this effect and visualize walking accomplishments is to use a daily log or journal. By writing down the speed of each walk and the distance covered, the walker can keep track of personal improvement.
Walking may also promote feelings of pleasure, tranquility, and well-being and help relieve the pain of depression by encouraging the production of the body's natural opiates, called endorphins. These chemical cousins of morphine are responsible for the feeling of euphoria called "runner's high."
Exercise can help distract depressed people from their feelings of sadness. Simply going through the motions of confident striding may be enough to build a walker's confidence. Also, since regular aerobic exercise is an important aid in losing weight and toning muscles, exercisers may feel the general sense of well-being that stems from knowing they look better and feel healthier.
And unlike some more strenuous exercises, walking feels good while you're doing it, not just when you stop.
To learn more about walking, see:
Peggy Norwood Keating, MA, Contributing consultant
Rebecca Hughes, Contributing writer