Walking and Mental Health

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How daily walks have boosted our mental health during COVID-19 lockdown, and why should continue as it begins to lift

Priory Group, a provider of mental health care in the UK, surveyed 2000 people during this time to find out what form of exercise they have been using to boost their mental health.

  • YouGov research shows that 74% of the UK have exercised more often in lockdown
  • A Priory Group survey found that walking has been the most popular form of exercise for a mental health boost during the coronavirus pandemic
  • Clinical psychologist Dr Louise Joy-Johnson explains why we should continue with our daily walks as lockdown lifts and how getting outdoors can help our mental health
  • Dr Joy-Johnson’s patient Claire also describes how her daily walks have helped with her anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic

A recent poll by YouGov found that 74% of people in the UK have been exercising more during the coronavirus lockdown.

65% of respondents said that they have been walking regularly to improve their mood. Dancing and cycling came in joint second place with 23% respectively.

Ranking Exercise Percentage
1 Walking 65%
2 Cycling 23%
2 Dancing 23%
4 Jogging 16%
5 Yoga 15%


Dr Louise Joy-Johnson, Clinical Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre in Manchester is pleased to see that people are choosing to take daily walks as it is an effective form of exercise for better mental health, especially at a time when we are spending more of our time indoors:

“The coronavirus has created a pressure cooker of heightened anxiety and stress. We have 24/7 access to news related to the pandemic, and are having to adjust to new stressors including loss of income, working from home, home-schooling and living with others in a confined space.

“Many of the strategies that we normally use to cope with stress and anxiety are not as readily available as they used to be. Walking is offering people an escape from the pressure cooker and a chance to alleviate stress.”

Research has shown that when we walk outdoors – whether that is in the woods, in a city park or down a tree-lined street – it lifts our spirits. The experience of these positive emotions enhances our abilities to cope with symptoms related to our mental health.

Dr Joy-Johnson explained: “Walking in nature stimulates the release of neurotransmitters including endorphins and serotonin, and these trigger a positive feeling in the body and enhance our mood.

“Escaping our usual settings for a more serene and multisensory environment – with aesthetically calming sights, smells of crushed plant oils and the taste and feel of fresh air – offers an opportunity for mindfulness.

“This ‘grounding’ experience, where we redirect our mental awareness to our bodies and our environment helps us to ‘quiet’ the mind and focus on the present moment. It takes our mind off day-to-day problems and brings a sense of calm, which can reduce our heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, helping to alleviate stress and anxiety, and therefore boost our wellbeing.

“Walking also involves bilateral stimulation of the body. The repetitive, rhythmic movement stimulates both the left and right sides of our brain. Such stimulation is known to help the brain process emotional distress. This decreased physiological arousal can cause us to feel more relaxed, helping us to ‘clear our heads’ and improve our mood.

“If you want a bigger mental health boost from your daily walk, redirect your mental awareness to your body and your environment, and try to stay present in your surroundings. Doing so can help your mind to become “quiet” and focused on the present moment rather than ruminating on pains from the past or worries about the future.”

Dr Louise Joy-Johnson

Claire – who receives therapeutic support from Dr Louise Joy-Johnson – has been walking regularly as she has found it to be an effective way of managing her anxiety: “When lockdown was announced, my family were concerned that my mental health would suffer. I wasn’t upset or particularly anxious about it, other than having the realisation that all my usual coping strategies would change.

“So, I planned in regular walks, aiming for at least 10,000 steps per day. I walk around the local valley, taking in all the beauty of the countryside. The woodlands and the sounds of the river continue to keep me well and free of anxieties, and I am able to think and reconnect to find a great sense of peace.

“In some ways, lockdown has helped me appreciate and take time to enjoy the fresh air as well as the things we so often miss while in our cars.”

As we transition into our ‘new normal’ and lock-down restrictions are eased, many of us will be invited to slowly and safely return to work. This is likely to cause increased anxiety and will require compassion and flexibility.

The below includes some evidence based training, support and guidance freely available for individuals and employers to utilise to support this transition.

Every Mind Matters can help adults discover simple steps to achieve better mental health with expert advice and practical tips and includes a free online action plan.  https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/

The Mental Health for Employers toolkit provides employers with guidance to take positive actions to build a culture that champions good mental health.

Supporting all individuals within Greater Manchester. For more details about mental health and wellbeing support and resources available for children, young people, adults and families visit: https://hub.gmhsc.org.uk/mental-health/covid-19-resources/

Psychological First Aid

Psychological First Aid (PFA) digital training module takes around 90 minutes to complete and is also available in three sessions for the learner to complete at their own pace. By the end of the course, outcomes will include: understanding how emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic can affect us, recognising people who may be at increased risk of distress and understanding how to offer practical and emotional support.

Suicide Prevention

Complete the Talk2Me: Suicide Awareness training course. Learn to save a life in 20mins. It aims to give you the skills and confidence to help someone who may be considering suicide. It focuses on breaking stigma and encouraging open conversations.


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