By Andrea Petersen and Alex Janin
Aug. 2, 2022
If reducing stress has been on your summer to-do list, there’s one powerful thing you can still do before the season ends: get in the habit of taking a walk outside with a friend.
Stress is battering us on many fronts. About 87% of adults said rising prices due to inflation are a significant source of stress, according to a March survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association. High prices, summer travel snafus and an ever-morphing virus haven’t made it easy to relax. Once September hits, we’ll be back to busier offices, hectic school-day routines and jam-packed weekends. To relax before all that starts, there’s a science-backed way to destress.
A brisk walk in nature with a friend combines three of the most effective stress-reducing and resilience-building techniques, according to psychologists and scientific research: physical exercise, social connection and spending time in nature. The activity works by helping normalize the hormonal changes that result from chronic stress and boosting the emotional resources that help us cope.
“Even if it’s just 20 minutes around your neighborhood, [the walk] is good for you physically, immunologically, especially when doing it with someone else,” says Helen L. Coons, associate professor and clinical health psychologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
How stress affects our bodies
A growing number of scientific studies show that chronic stress can lead to a host of health problems, including depression, heart disease, immune-system problems and obesity. About three-quarters of people surveyed by APA said they are overwhelmed by the number of crises facing the world. Half said housing costs are a significant stressor.
Not all stress is bad, of course. Stress in small spurts—called acute stress—is crucial to our survival. When we perceive a threat, such as a car barreling toward us or a critical work deadline, our brains prompt the adrenal glands to release the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. That makes the heart pump faster, moving blood to muscles; breathing quickens, sending extra oxygen to the brain; and a glucose surge gives the body a burst of energy. The response heightens our senses and makes us more alert.
The adrenal glands also release the hormone cortisol. When the brain no longer detects the threat, cortisol levels fall. When stress becomes chronic, our cortisol levels stay elevated, which scientists believe leads to inflammation that is at least partly responsible for health problems.
How nature walks help
Walking briskly activates the body’s stress response. And when the walk is over, the stress system comes back down to baseline. Regular exercise helps your stress response become more efficient, says Jennifer Heisz, associate professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
The exercise you get while walking briskly also strengthens the functioning of the serotonin system in the brain, which affects mood, and the dopamine system, which is involved in anticipating rewards. And the activity increases the release of neuropeptide Y, a substance that is linked to stress reduction.
As little as 10 minutes of sitting or walking in nature can decrease a person’s heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, as well as self-reported stress levels, according to Don Rakow and Gen Meredith, co-lead authors of a 2020 study about the connection between mental health and nature.
One possible explanation, the researchers say, is that spending time in nature lowers the activity of our sympathetic nervous system, which regulates stress hormones, and taps into the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes our calm and relaxation responses.
The added benefits of friends
Taking that hike with a loved one can further reduce stress by adding the important element of social connection. Talking with trusted friends helps people process stressful events and lifts self esteem, says Bert Uchino, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah. Social support has positive effects on the brain and body, scientific research finds.
Earlier this year, Cassie Moreno was in a rut of stress and anxiety. She was starting a new job, struggling to make new friends during the pandemic, and going through a break-up.
While scrolling through TikTok in January, a post about a New York City-based walking group for women caught Ms. Moreno’s eye. One day when she was feeling particularly low, she joined the group. Strolling along the Hudson River with other women in the group, the 26-year-old Maine native says she felt an immediate surge of confidence and calm.
“I was like, how do we live here? Look at the water! Look at the Statue of Liberty! How did we get this lucky?” she says.
Write to Andrea Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org and Alex Janin at email@example.com
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