Just Walk It Off: How Walking Can Improve Your Emotional Well-Being

WalkingA few years ago, a friend of mine went through a particularly rough patch – one of those stretches in which life unraveled in continuous layers. She’d taken multiple trips through the emotional wringer. I was happy to catch up with her recently at a dinner party, where she was looking and feeling recovered, even content and happy again. Lingering at the table with a few of us, she ended up sharing some of the strategies that got her through that time – practices she explained she still uses when serious stress takes hold. “There were days,” she described, “when I would be so upset, so wound around a particular event and unable to let go that it was either continue wandering around the house slamming doors and making large, demonstrative arm movements as I played out the infuriating script running through my head – or just get outside and go for a long ‘$%#& you’ walk to let the bad energy burn itself out.” By the time she got back, she explained, she was dealing with embers instead of an all-out inferno. In other words, things felt manageable again. Over and over, as simple as it was, those walks were one of the main things that got her through – recognizing when she needed the release and letting the steps work their magic.

While she didn’t venture all that far from home most times – if not the streets of her neighborhood itself then maybe the beach or a nearby state park, others have clearly taken the concept to new lengths. With bestselling memoirs and movies covering the hiking quests of those who take to the trails in varying shades of grief and disorientation, the apparently hip thing to do with life’s disillusionment is to walk it off.

As I’ve gone into recently, we’re made to walk – obligated to, in fact. We can bask in the evolutionary continuum, quantify the health advantages or feel inspired by those whose daily strolls fueled their creativity and vision. On a more personal note, however, I wonder how much we turn to walking for more than exercise, more than utility. How much of our walking is emotionally-driven? How much of our walking, you could say, is about the desire to walk “away” from something?

Maybe it’s an argument with our partner or a frustrating exchange with a coworker, a difficult conversation with a son or daughter or yet another run-in with that least favorite neighbor. Aside from an actual person, maybe we’re just frazzled and frayed, blocked mentally or creatively or perhaps overwhelmed by our thoughts and need to get out from underneath them.

Our “walking away” is in the end more than metaphor. That Kierkegaard quote from a few weeks ago still stays with me: “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”

What is it about a walk that makes space, that clears the air, that moderates our worst moods and allows us to breathe? What about a simple walk gets us in our right mind again?

I think we’ve all felt the release – from the vice grip of anger or anxiety, confusion or grief. What’s the physiological picture behind this emotional alchemy? What biochemical powers do their work, and what ends can they serve that we haven’t even considered?

First, the big picture… Beyond the euphoric runner’s high, moderate physical activity (often represented as simple walking in studies) has been shown to “soothe” us neurologically. When subjected to stress, it seems, our neurons get fired up. While regular activity boosts our production of “young” excitable neurons largely concentrated in the hippocampus – an emotional and cognitive processing center, activity also supports the abundance of neurons responsible for releasing GABA, a calming neurotransmitter that dampens brain activity and can ease anxiety.

In the larger scheme of things, research suggests, the more active we are, the less we “feel” stress. Over time, it becomes the brain’s set organization, meaning even if haven’t exercised for a few days because of illness or vacation, we’re still running off the same neurologically beneficial model.

In the short-term, we also gain from the exertion with the flush of feel-good fuzzies made possible by the enhanced secretion of various neurotransmitters as well as an increase in levels of opioids and endocannabinoids, leading some to label exercise as a psychoactive drug.

What’s more? The mood-moderating effects of exercise can set in within as little as five minutes but can last for up to twelve hours. As I’ve noted before, exercising in “green” or “blue” natural spaces offers considerably higher benefits, particularly for mood enhancement, than exercising indoors.

Beyond any biochemical measurement, walking is becoming incorporated into therapy and support models. With so-called “walk and talk therapy,” patients and therapists walk during their sessions, providing movement opportunity, which can be helpful for those whose agitation would make regular sedentary therapy conversation unduly stressful. The outdoor setting additionally makes a walk and talk format more appealing for many people, who feel they can relax more outside in the larger, natural space.

Additionally, walking bereavement groups have popped up in various corners of the U.S. and other countries. Within the groups, which are sometimes organized by hospice centers for family members who have lost a loved one or are other times less formally gathered. The benefits include the activity itself but also the social connection and kinship around it. There’s an accountability and a trust in others’ identification with their shared grief experience that many have found socially supportive and ultimately healing.

Whether we’re processing deep grief, sifting through emotional disorientation, soothing daily stress or calming down for an unpleasant interaction, walking lets us off the leash of directed thinking and interaction. It open up mental fields to explore, which perhaps can help us see other perspectives and become aware of the angles of our reactions better than we can when we’re sitting in a ball on the couch obsessing over our own negative thoughts.

In that sense, a simple outdoor walk expands not just our field of vision but our field of thinking and feeling. Ferris Jabr, writer for The New Yorker, noted that walking also helps join and even synchronize our psychological and physical energies: “Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state…. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.”

Within the awareness of how the emotional can drive the physical, we see the potential for the opposite dynamic. The act and environment of walking takes us to a more expansive place mentally. Perhaps the physical exertion supports the emotional catharsis through full body and mind participation, providing a more potent and tangible release of tension. Walking “away” from a problem – or walking with it, we bring our troubles into a larger light and witness them in perspective to the world and community around us. Within that hour’s getaway, perhaps we experience them as lighter and more diffuse even within the mix of our own human energy.

Thanks for reading, everyone. What do you think of walking as therapy – either as a personal or clinical practice? Share your thoughts, and have a great end to the week.

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

53 thoughts on “Just Walk It Off: How Walking Can Improve Your Emotional Well-Being”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. A walk or an easy run/jog does this for me. Alone or with someone else seems to have different effects but are both so emotionally nurturing. A walking therapy or bereavement group is a great idea. I can see it really facilitating emotional healing.

    1. I’ve chickened out the last two days since it has been below zero here. The sidewalks are unshoveled and icy, and I’d rather not risk breaking my neck. Meanwhile my dog has been giving me dirty looks, although she’s a bit of a candy-ass herself. If it’s really cold, the snow makes iceballs between her pads, and then she wants to be carried. Ha, fat chance!

      1. Shary, I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota and it’s 9°F today. When it’s icy I wear Yak trax , which are stretchy metal spring-like things that go over hiking or other boots. They really grip the ice so walking feels normal and safe. I realized several years ago that if I don’t get outside even when it’s cold I start feeling depressed or stressed. Good clothes in layers are key. They even have coats and booties for your dog!

        1. Thanks for the reminder, Kay. I’ve seen those Yak Trax, but we rarely get weather like this where I live (metro-Denver), and it never lasts more than a day or two. I do like to get out of the house for a while most days, but I don’t relish spending much time outside when it’s so godawful cold. Thankfully, we are expected to climb out of the deep-freeze today.

    2. I was planning on writing the same comment, amen to that. What could be better than a walk with a dog that you have a deep kinship with? A walk with two dogs you love!

      I swore off commuting in 1986, one of the healthiest and most deeply satisfying decisions I have ever made. Find a job that you can walk or bike to or find a home nearer to your job and you have seamlessly integrated your fitness plan into your life.

      1. I want a job that I can walk my dog to and keep him there until we walk back home. Come to think of it, walking with a human is primal for the dog too. It brings out their instinctive hunting partnership even if your quarry is just fresh air and the scent of nature.

    3. Nice thing about dogs is they “make” you get out and walk. Glad Mark always comes back to walking as a basic need – so many people don’t realize how something so simple can be so good for you.

  2. It’s interesting how being Primal continuously obviates these basic topics that normally are below our consciousness because we take them for granted.

  3. ditto on walking with a dog making it even better. My two cats go on hikes with us too. Taking walk breaks at work has been bolstering my mental health for years.

    1. I used to have a cat that would walk around the block with me–sans leash (voice control only). People used to remark about “that lady that walks her cat.”

  4. I love these posts discussing the benefits of walking. You really do feel so much better after a walk. I think it’s just the refreshing outdoor air and the stimulation of actually moving around. Every time I read these posts they offer a spark of motivation and insight.

  5. Comfort-walking is a much better alternative than comfort-eating. Walks are good for the soul as well as the body.

    1. absolutely–and nothing better than a walk in the woods for that!

      1. Why not combine all three?

        Comfort walking out in the woods while comfort eating some primal trail mix. 😛

        1. – love that term “comfort-walking” – and great post! 🙂

    2. wow, love the comfort-walking concept! Will write this down to remember when I feel tempted to eat just because ‘i worked hard and deserve it.’

    3. I LOVE this article! Plus all the wonderful links – I went through and clicked on most of them and read those as well. This article is exactly what I needed right now – have been struggling with inertia and it’s just the kick in the pants I need. Thanks again for all you do.

  6. “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”…
    doo doo do, da do, do do do doo

  7. I can see how “walking away” from stress works–have done it in fact–but I find my long morning walk to work is more of a “settling walk” where a plan for my day shapes up, almost by itself, and by the time I get to work, I’m ready to tackle it. Seems like a good walk has so many beneficial facets…thanks for the reminder…

  8. Completely agree. My thoughts move so much more fluidly when I’m walking. It’s been key to surviving a difficult emotional year. Another science-y angle on this: I once heard (from a therapist) that any kind of repetitive alternating motion (running, biking, swimming, walking, just patting your knees) somehow helps the brain process thoughts/memories. This function is related to the way our eyes move back and forth when we’re in REM sleep – there is some kind of processing happening while we sleep. This ties into EMDR therapy, which utilizes an alternating vibrating pulse that the patient holds in each hand during the therapy session. Supposedly trauma can throw up a neurological block to this normal processing of memory (why people with PTSD have flashbacks) and EMDR helps to get those memories unstuck and properly catalogued. Just thought of this – maybe also related to why a rocking motion is so soothing to babies and children.

  9. I took your advice and practiced my speech that I am scheduled to give this afternoon while walking. Worked great to minimize nerves as well.

  10. I went through a very rough patch 15 years ago. I attribute my recovery to my walks I took with my mom every day. Rain, shine or monsoon we had my son out in the stroller for an hour walk. It was a 30 minute walk to the coffee shop and we would stop and get coffee and a cheese scone.(pre-paleo days. I still dream of those scones). If it wasn’t such a painful time, I would probably look back on those walks fondly. I still walk every day and I’m lucky enough that work has a nice place to walk outside and a gym for days I can’t get out.

  11. I take my three-year-old golden retriever for at least one long, brisk walk a day, usually two. I enjoy these walks and they are the cornerstone of my daily primal movement practice, but the walking I enjoy the most is the walking that takes me somewhere I need to go. I can run very few errands without getting into my car, but more and more I park a quarter- or half-mile away from my destination if time allows and then walk the rest of the way. I’m not sure why, but I notice that these short walks with a purpose really put a bounce in my step and lift my spirits. Maybe it’s because they slow me down a bit when I’m “on the go” and help me to be more present in the moment.

  12. I’ve found walking around SF instead of transit/driving is like an adventure that makes me find out new stuff about the city every time. Love it!

  13. Speaking as someone who just spent a weekend trekking 20+ miles chasing pheasants and prairie chickens, I can attest to this. Just the walking, mile upon mile, was relaxing and calmed my brain down after a stressful week at work. The intermittent excitement of a bird flushing from three feet away and behind me once in a while brought my mind back into the here and now. Sort of a pattern interrupt for my wandering mind.
    Plus, there’s nothing like a freezer full of free-range poultry.

  14. I’ve gotten in to the habit of walking to the post office each day, even now that the weather is turning. It makes a huge difference in my outlook. It doesn’t matter how I started out feeling, I’m always better after my walk.

  15. A walk on the beach soothes the soul! Need to do it more often….

  16. It’s weird you phrase your questions as “walking away.” I always look at it as “walking toward.”

    1. Perhaps this is similar to the classic optimist/pessimist analogy of the glass half full situation?

  17. I couldn’t agree more! I love to walk, regardless of any other workout or exercise I may do, I always look forward to simply going for a walk. My favorite is to go for a walk to break up the workday monotony.

  18. I am addicted to walking, especially walking barefoot in the park, after a toke or two. I like it best when the grass is wet and I’m gaining the benefits of “grounding”. But the walking would not be as sweet for me if I didn’t listen to my music on my headphones. I find that the tones of music put me in a place I couldn’t get to without it. It’s clearly an addiction and that’s why I walk at least an hour to two each day. Walking with someone is also great, but 99% of the time I walk alone.

  19. As a psychiatrist I have started walking with a couple of my longer term patients around a leafy tree lined block for 5 to 10 mins as part of the session. So far seems good for them and for me. With patients booked all day I can walk as few as 1500 steps for the day. With a lunch time walk I get up to 3000 steps.
    Thanks for all the recent walking articles, which have helped cement how important and therapeutic ( without side effects) it is.

  20. Wow you just opened my eyes to something I’ve been doing without realising. A few years ago I went through a breakup and each evening when I was alone I would hit the pavement and walk (holding conversations aloud which helps me sort through things). I would start out power walking hurt and angry but I would eventually walk at a slower pace as I calmed. Much, much more importantly, I have used this technique with my autistic daughter. When she is very upset and everything sets her off (with no idea why!) and everyone’s frustration levels are going through the roof, I take her for a walk. Within a minute or two she begins to calm (and so do I) and by the end all is right with the world. I can’t believe I never saw it, even though I knew it worked. Thanks Mark!! Now I will step in quicker instead of as a last resort.

  21. Sometimes when I’m feeling stressed I walk off, then I feel better, or at least a bit more relaxed or too tired to do anything rash. Oh yes, also a good way to avoid those.
    Seriously though, I do find walking extremely therapeutic. I haven’t been out and about much lately because I’ve been choosing to be kind of holed up in a friend’s apartment I’ve been living in, but when I get out and move around I usually feel a boost in my energy, mood/enthusiasm factor, and general perception of personal bodily health.
    Since I’ve spent so much time indoors recently I’ve been appreciating the outdoors more when I get out. When walking through town (which basically runs East and West with a little river the same way in the middle) I’ve been following the wilder and more isolated river bank courses and such, walking beside it and cutting through little patches of wilderness and people’s large open back yards against the river (no one’s ever complained about me walking through.. decent town though, fairly laid back). I prefer to take the more natural routes and stay off the sidewalks, streets, and concrete/pavement public designated surfaces a lot of the time.
    I do some calisthenics at my friend’s place like pull ups and chin ups off the decorative door frame ledges or a tree branch outside and dips on chairs and the balcony corner and lunges up the stairs, plus hop/skip/jumping/sliding/spinning/twirling.. whatever it takes to navigate the somewhat crowded living space especially when wearing slippery socks on the wood floor (wheee!) but once in a while I need to get out and locomote farther than the kitchen to the living room etc. and indulge in some fresh air and natural flooring (aka the ground, which doesn’t give a shhh about sea level). Then when I get back and step into a cloud of warm, thick smoke I burst into a coughing fit and need to (or should) pound back a pint or two at least and maybe make mint, licorice, and chamomile tea if it’s there to stay loose in the throat and negate my respiratory itchiness and do my best to hydrate my mucosal membranes (I heard sea buckthorn works for that specific purpose, but think it’s expensive), to avoid feeling bad and like I’m verging on a frenzy from the irritation from the smoke, since she smokes cigarettes almost as often as possible when she’s awake, like she wants to set the world record, and gets colder easier than me so I can’t always leave the windows open. I try to look at it like Grok living in a smoky cave for the winter. Apparently beeswax candles purify the air. Ironically she informed me of this and we went through one. The internet confirms that burning a beeswax candle is purifying and created negative ions and I don’t really doubt. Bees are amazing. She also like to mix essential oils in water and spray them around. That helps a bit. I’m thinking I should get more beeswax candles though. I already told her about running water and negative ions.

    1. I forgot to mention there was just one kind of tropical plant with pointed leaves in the apartment but now there’s a jasmine vine plant and a little cactus with two pink flowers. I also broke a bunch of little branches off a pine or some evergreen tree and there’s vases full of them there with water to help the branches live longer. Our goal is an indoor jungle or forest and I expect when I get my own apartment I’ll do something similar.
      I also brought over two big standing fans with a motion option I found outside donation bins and a small sitting one.
      Plants, herbs/incense, beeswax candles, hopefully some nice art, and that is my vague decorating plan to have a wicked comfy apartment.

  22. Walking is my go-to solution to worries, stress, being overworked, finding balance….I was just telling my partner while we were on a hike last Sunday that I recently realized I’ve treated walking-as-healing my entire life:

    I’d walk to the downtown of my Civil War era home town to catch a movie with girlfriends when I was in elementary school (back when that was still safe!).

    I’d shortcut through the old cemeteries and relish the huge trees and the peaceful, park-like setting, escape from tensions at home or school or just the angst of being a teenager.

    In college, I walked to my classes, eschewing a car or even a bike.

    Now I live in the high country of Northern Arizona, in a section of private properties surrounded by national forest. I walk nearly every day, and when it gets too cold an snowy, I cross-country ski instead.

    On vacation, I can walk along a beach for hours, lost in the constant singing of the waves.

    Walking is healthy on so many levels – and I’m lucky to share my life with a man who loves it as much as I do! As they say, “get out there!” It’ll do you good!

  23. Walking, or any kind of exercise does not make me feel better when i am going through an emotional issue. If anything, it makes me feel worse. The only thing that helps me is playing my flute or watching comedy show like The Big Bang Theory. When you are reading music and focusing on playing with expression, you can’t think of your problems. Walking for me is something I do when I am happy, not sad or during deep pondering… Everyone is different.

  24. When I was going through a tough emotional and physical time of my life, I just walked and walked and walked and then I walked some more until I just couldn’t think any more about the metaphorical demons torturing me. I would return home physically exhausted. The dogs loved the long walks with me. I now know that when our fight or flight system is activated then it is often better to fly than fight. Physical flight, I suspect, burns off our stress hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol. Its what Grok did when he was running from a tiger.

  25. This might seem a bit weird but when walking while on an even terrain free of obstacles keep your sight focused on the horizon and try to avoid looking down at your feet/the path. This constant horizon focus has been linked to that elevation of mood and better sense of well being

    P.s walking is such an underrated exercise and I’ve seen clients drop 30-40 pounds by taking up walking programs


  26. Yes, yes, yes. I had a really bad day at work a few months ago and had a lot to sort out in my head after work. I decided on a whim to go for a walk around the lake and before I knew it, it was hours later and 10 miles round trip!

  27. Whenever you have a conflict with someone, the advice to walk a mile in their shoes works extremely well because
    1) you’re now a mile away from them,
    2) you also have their shoes.

  28. Good post. I know I always feel better getting into nature when I’ve got stuff and problems on my mind. I try to focus on my surroundings. Taking my dogs help and also listening to motivational speakers and podcasts on my headphones.

  29. Today,
    This is my prefered way of exercising
    Just get into the forest and trails and walk.
    There is something about walking below trees that does it for me
    With the added benefit of pure air and being in nature.
    Ok, every now and then every week I also try sprinting in the trails
    Or riding my bike

  30. Walking meditations form part of Buddhist and Taoist traditions. And they know a thing or two about the healthful state!

  31. A morning walk with the wife is one of my favorite ways to start the day. It feels great to get fresh air and it gives us a chance to talk. Walking may be slow, but it feels great.

  32. I’m happy to read any article about walking and its benefits. I live in Russia , in a small city and I’ve noticed that not so many people like to walk. Cars became a real epidemic here. Some people use their cars even to get to the nearest shop instead of walking. I try to walk everyday, and I hope it will become a habit:)

  33. couple of typos- it’s “weeks ago”, not “week’s ago”; and Vice-Grip is actually a trademarked product… a “vice grip” is, well, something unpleasant to live with I suppose.

  34. Walking is living. I’ll walk anywhere. Just got back from a week in Vegas and walked on average 6-7 miles a day (had a car too!). I believe it’s all about the importance of movement, but the cascade of benefits is undeniable. It’s about what’s under your feet and why and then doing something about it. It’s a head to toe kinda thing. Low tech and highly effective.

  35. A very good book about walking and the bilateral mind and body effects on wellbeing is “Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being”
    Thom Hartmann (Author)

    Fascinating. I have used this walking technique in healing some stresses and emotional crap.