Is Going For A Walk Good For Depression?
Is Going For A Walk Good For Depression? is an article about ways I’ve tried to help myself through regular bouts of deep depression. Or, more to the point, how I try to intervene before I get there. And although it’s a personal piece and I talk about some of my own experiences, I’ve not gone into too much detail because I hope it will be inspiring, not ‘triggering’. Even so, if you’re in the depths of it, you might want to give it a miss and come back when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel again. And I think I’m proof that you can (see the light again), so if this is you, I’ll see you soon x
Updated October 2021
Low mood or depression affects everyone in different ways, but, sadly, it can be a serious barrier to enjoying the great outdoors for many of us.
Is Going For a Walk Good For Depression? Not Necessarily…
Although an older article (2012), this story, published on Mind (a mental health charity in the UK) perfectly sums up my experience (and anxiety) about the “evangelising” of walking or exercising your way out of depression. I agree with the author that
Maybe going for regular walks is good for mild to moderate depression, but it does nothing for deep depression.
Well, that’s to say it’s no good telling someone in the throes of a depressive episode to get out of bed and go for a walk. We can’t. End of. It’s like wading through treacle: impossible. But after decades of deep depressive episodes, with all that that brings, I’m beginning to recognise signs that my mood is dropping like a stone (but only after years of therapy). And one of those signs? Walking and exercising too much. You read that right: I go into total overdrive. It’s like being in panic mode.
Control Or Compulsion?
I generally find movement calming and when I need to feel calm I’ll do anything to find it. So I walk and I walk, I stomp, I run, but the panic increases because, inevitably, it’s not working. At that point, I think I’m not doing enough, so I do more, but it’s still not working… Then I’m compelled to walk even more – until I absolutely can’t.
Recognising that I’m walking to try and diffuse the panic of an oncoming depressive episode is an indication that I need medical intervention…
before it’s too late. And this is the entire point:
The answer to the question ‘Is going for a walk good for depression?’ is this: ‘possibly, if it’s not already too late’.
And by that, I mean it can help maintain a stable mood. But in my experience, it can’t help if your mood’s about to take a nose-dive. (You can’t suddenly start walking and expect to be cured.) At this point in the cycle, I have to ask if I’m in control of my self-care or whether I’m dealing with compulsion.
When I originally wrote this post in 2019 my mood was about to hit the floor, but it’s only with hindsight that I can see the warning signs were there. The next few paragraphs are from the original article, as I was going into freefall.
Writing From The Fall
My Nocturnal Thoughts
This is where I’m at. It’s 3:25 am, I can’t sleep and I’m ruminating about my life. I’m getting old. It was my birthday recently and I was 55. Which is Scary Shit [and the Scary Shit goes on]. I’ve never felt so anxious about a birthday before. I know I’m not your average 55 year old in terms of physical health and fitness, I don’t even look my age. Apparently. (No grey hairs yet, thanks to the fabulous ginger gene.) But it’s weird when you begin to notice your face is lined and you’re not even smiling. I worry about acknowledging how old I am because I think people won’t want to talk to me anymore.
I identify with active women in their mid-thirties and forties and I think they’ll think I’m about to hang up my hiking gear when all I want to do is ramp it up.
My life isn’t finished yet: my life has barely started.
I lost at least 10 consecutive years to depression (and plenty more before that) and I want those years back. But there’s no time to wait, so I tell myself in the dead of night.
Life In Treacle
There are always barriers and setbacks to overcome in life that result in a lack of motivation, whatever the reason. But I feel like I’ve been wading through treacle for weeks. My mood has inexplicably dropped to my boots, and so have my energy levels and motivation.
I can’t think clearly. I can’t remember anything. I’m clumsy. And everything feels a hundred times more difficult than it did a few weeks ago.
Clinical, deep depression sucks, but I know the symptoms well, even the early ones now, and I’m resisting them with everything I’ve got, but I worry I don’t have enough. [I didn’t.]
It’s at times like this I know I need to get outside and walk, even if it’s just half an hour beside the river. But, as anyone who’s had depression knows, a half-hour walk is like climbing a mountain without eating for days. [And so the compulsion began…]
External V Internal Motivation
It can be easy to give in to the lethargy when life inside your head is so hard that it profoundly affects your physical being.
However, I’ve discovered that to find the motivation to get outside I have to stick to (or start) regular routines without questioning. I don’t ask ‘what’s the point?’, I just do it regardless [until I finally do give in]. And I try and set realistic goals and challenges, but this can be disheartening when you’re ambitious or thrive on challenges. I have to remind myself that lowering the bar for a while isn’t a failure: it’s often the only way forward.
So, before I nosedive into the depths of despair (again) I’m looking for anything positive, anything externally motivating. Anything I can grasp hold of [and there it is: the panic talking]. And recently it was my favourite podcast (the Tough Girl Challenges Podcast with Sarah Williams) that got me motivated to try something different.
From Podcast To Bucket List
I dipped into the podcast archive and came across Sarah’s interview with Paula Reid. I’d never heard of her before, but she’s done some crazy things, from sailing around the world to worm charming. Paula’s mantra is ‘live life to the full’ which is reflected in the adventures she has, and the way she describes her personal journey with such insight and frankness is hard to resist.
There was so much inspiration in this episode, but there’s one thing that Paula does that really got me thinking: she’s published her bucket list. More interestingly though, for anyone in a depressive episode, she’s published her ‘done-it’ list as well. This is important because
Depression can wipe out all memory of the things you’ve achieved, or worse, minimise and negate their value.
So, inspired by Paula Reid, I’m going to make a list of the positive things I’ve done (while I can remember them), achievements that remind me life has meaning. And I’m going to publish them here too, along with my bucket list, because there’s still so much I want to do and experience.
And I don’t want to forget that either.
Is Going For A Walk Good For Depression?
Fast Forward To 2021
It’s 2 years later and my bucket list and done-it list are thriving (and constantly growing)
Publishing them was the best decision I made because seeing them in black and white has made me accountable. I check in regularly to make sure they’re up to date – and seeing ticks beside the things I’ve done (the hikes I’ve done!) is motivating. Knowing, also, that I’ve ticked things off through yet more episodes of depression since 2019 has been empowering. Not only does it show me that I’ve done meaningful things, but it also shows me there’s always another hike I want to do. And that’s what makes life worth living: things to look forward to. Which for me mostly means hiking and backpacking.
So Is Going For A Walk Good For Depression, Really?
For me, probably not, not in the sense that the question is framed anyway (and just the one walk won’t do it for anyone!). But if your depression is such that you can’t get off the sofa then some external stimulus might help, eventually. Listen to podcasts, watch hiking videos on YouTube, inspiring films on Netflix, rearrange your map shelf… Or, even write a hiking bucket list.
You’ll probably fall asleep whilst you’re doing it, or you might believe there’s no point, but let’s be honest, nothing’s a quick fix for this bastard. But show it who’s boss anyway and keep connected to something you love, even if you can’t fully enjoy it for now. The hills and mountains, the coast – they’re not going anywhere. And there’ll be better days ahead.
Thanks for reading and keep hiking.
Want More Food For Thought?
I like chewing the cud (as you may have noticed!) and if you enjoyed this, why not try these: Benefits Of Hiking: Filling Up On The Outside (it’s not your usual ‘it’s good for your mental and physical health’ article either, but you probably guessed that), or Women Adventurers: What Stops Us Getting Out There? It’s another article from 2019, but is it still relevant, what do you think?
That is a very poignant and thought provoking blog Stephie. As a sufferer of PTSD following a 30 year career as an military avaiator through 5 conflicts I can associate with the feeling of not wanting to go out through the door in the morning. There are days when I just feel like turning the alarm off and staying in bed rather than getting dressed and going out for a walk. I will use every excuse I can think of to not go out walking. Somedays my mind wins but more and more I am taking a greater control of my actions.
It is interesting that you make reference to the fact that you associate ‘with active women in their mid thirties and forties’. When I was selected to be an Ordnance Survey Champion I had just turn 60 and at our first gathering I had a major imposter issue because everyone else there was doing loads of amazing things that I could not do. This held me back for a while until I developed a realistic mindset.
I realised that everything the rest of the champions were doing, I had already done when I was their age. I had walked and climbed all over the world. I had descended some of the deepest cave systems known at that time. I had sailed, cycled, ran, abseilled etc. I realised I didnt have anything to prove. With this release of self induced ‘peer pressure’, getting out on my adventures in my 60’s was so much easier.
What I am trying to say Stephie, is dont compare yourself to the younger woman. Yes you are fitter and healthier than most 55 year old, but do not put yourself under extra pressure in trying to ‘claw back’ the lost years. Don’t look back, look forward to what you can achieve – which from what I can see is most anything!
Release those extra burdens and it will be easier to open the door and walk out.
Beleive in yourself Glyn xx
Thanks Glyn, that was really thoughtful and very kind. You’ve achieved a great deal and are so encouraging of others, inspiring for anyone wanting to get out there, over 60 or not! And definitely leading by example.
My reason for ‘looking back’ is that I feel I haven’t done all the things I wanted to do due to illness and I want to do them now, because it makes life meaningful.
I certainly haven’t walked all over the world like you, been caving, sailing, etc… and I’ve always wanted to walk in Peru and the rest of South America, Nepal, Sweden, USA… I want to walk all our long distance trails as a way of experiencing different parts of our own country, I’d like to walk in Scotland, Wales…
The biggest barrier I have is a financial one, because I was so ill I couldn’t work for 10 years. I can’t sell my house and go to New Zealand or wherever, like some have, because I don’t have the luxury of my own home – I don’t even own a car! This sounds like an excuse not to do things, but I do what I can within the means I have, but my feet are itching like crazy!!! I wonder if ruminating on things like this is fuelling my low mood at the moment, who knows.
However, I’m incredibly fortunate to live where I do, because I have such fantastic walking right on my doorstep and I’m fit and well enough to enjoy it. I never forget that. And, I’m really looking forward to finishing off The South West Coast Path in the next week or two – and planning my next long distance trail! xx