Walk for your life: The mental health benefits of walking for nurses and midwives

Tessa Moriarty
Mental health nurse Tessa Moriarty shares how walking enriched her life in lockdown and beyond.

Mental health benefits of walking


Note from the Nurse & Midwife Support team: We know that exercise is the last thing many of us feel like doing right now, in the winter chill as we juggle busy shifts. Unfortunately, the research all shows that it’s exactly what we need at times like this. Check out our Spring 2020: Exercise newsletter to learn more about why it’s so important in even the craziest moments! A good walk is a simple way to integrate exercise into your routine, so we invited our good friend Tessa Moriarty to extol the virtues of a good walk.

Right now, our mental health matters more than ever. The stress of the pandemic means we must put a pin-notice on our wellbeing. Walking is a crucial component of any self-care or stress management routine.

Recent studies show that we need to urgently prioritise the mental health of our workforce due to the fallout of the pandemic. Fatigue, burnout, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression are increasing in the healthcare professions. We must stop what we’ve been doing, take a breath, take stock and take care.  While our employers have to do their bit, as responsible health professionals we must also now do for ourselves as we have done for others. Oxygen mask and life jacket on first please, nurses and midwives.

The physical and medical health benefits of walking are convincing and well known. Walking improves our cardiovascular health and functioning, increases our aerobic capacity and metabolism, reduces our risk of osteoarthritis and other diseases, and increases the levels of ‘feel good’ chemicals in our brains. Walking can also help maintain mobility. The word is out: walking is good for us.

A daily walk: A habit formed in lockdown

Walking has been more popular than ever in recent years. During long lockdowns, many of us were locked out of our regular workout haunts. We took to walking in the outdoors.  We discovered so much more than the health benefits or the sense of wellbeing that came from treading the pavement, the beach, the bush, the parks, and the streets of our suburbs and cities. In the outdoors (or anywhere outside our home or workplace) we learned the simple joys of walking. We enthusiastically embraced a cheap, accessible outdoor activity that almost anyone can do in some capacity. 

If you were like me, anyone you passed provided a rare opportunity to chat — at a distance, of course. This allowed us to connect not just with the passer-by, but with the strange new experience we were sharing. Connecting was good for our mental health. It helped to realise that even in the isolation of lockdown we weren’t alone. What we were going through mentally and emotionally, others were too.

Why we should keep walking

Now that we have unfettered access to gyms and sports teams, many of us are falling out of the habit of the daily walk, but I think we should keep up our efforts to keep walking.

Yesterday, I spent a long morning at my desk. By lunch time my shoulders were tight, my head was fuzzy, and I was teetering on the verge of a headache. I took breaks between screen sessions and plenty of water, but the time in-front of the screen, combined with the challenge of the tasks I was working on to alert me that my brain desperately needed a break.

I knew I had to get out.

Away from the computer, my jumbled thoughts, and the mindset I was stuck in. So, I loaded my backpack and laced my runners and headed on foot for the shore.

Embrace your own neighbourhood

Not everybody has the privilege of living by the sea with blue and green spaces of nature around them, but the great thing about walking is that it can be done almost anywhere, even indoors.  Whether it’s the treadmill or treading the carpet, for some people and some moments the indoor walk is all that’s available, and sometimes it can work too. But it’s not quite the same as getting outdoors.

Everybody has access to a different kind of outdoors. Many nurses and midwives work and live close to large hospitals and health services located in the inner cities, large towns and urban areas. You might not have the luxury of open fields full of cows or long sandy beaches, but you do have the streets of your suburb, the main shopping strip, or the hidden little paths and laneways of your cities and towns.

Sometimes we need to try and see our surroundings as if for the first time. Take the outside in, get out of our heads, and connect with the magic and glitter of shopfront windows, the rough of brickwork on old buildings, the tourist landmarks we usually ignore.

Most of us can walk, and runners or good walking shoes are relatively affordable — even if your legs can’t take you round the block, most of us can take our mobility aids outdoors.

Dismantle the barrier — it’s in your head

I am reminded of the Nike slogan — Just Do It. Thinking is not required.

Sometimes we create a barrier by thinking too much about why we can’t or don’t want to go on a walk. Sometimes revving ourselves up for exercise can be harder than the exercise itself! Throw in a late or change-of-shift, a cold day, rain, not enough or too much sleep, or the absence of our usual walking buddy, and our best intentions to maintain a walking routine can be thoroughly thwarted.  It’s important to remember what our experience tells us — that walking makes us feel great.

So, what’s the answer? For me, it’s that I have to just get out of bed the minute the alarm rings, no hesitation. I know how to do that. I’m a shift worker, used to early mornings, late nights and all the in-betweens.  So, let’s apply the same mentality to walking, with or without an alarm. Maybe a morning walk doesn’t walk for you, so take the night shift and explore your neighbourhood after dark. Treat your daily walk with the same commitment and seriousness you treat your profession. Though it might not bring in the dollars like your job, in the long term it will save you a fortune in good health and wellbeing.

Walk alone or with people

Some people like to walk alone.  The benefits of a good solo walk are multifaceted. Many choose their own company for their ‘me time’ or the ‘down time’ they know they need to clear their heads. A walk gives them the chance to process their day, reflect on work, personal issues, or just to revel in the magic and power of outdoors.

Others like to walk with others. There is another connection to be had.  My niece, a midwife, likes to walk with a close friend, also a midwife. The walk can be a social connection, a time to catch-up after an absence, or chit chat about work.  Walking with others brings people together.

There’s no rules to how or who you should walk with. But it’s worth considering - is it human connection you need, or the space to reflect on your own? 

If you decide you need time to be by yourself, connecting with nature can support a connection back to self, or link you to a sense of something greater than self. As you give yourself to your surroundings, you take in and connect with it. The might and sway of the trees, the wind in your face, the sun on your back, the buildings,  the sunset, the sun rise, the silhouette of a cathedral against the evening skyline. The people you pass, their smiles, faces and frowns. As we walk, we can be touched by the magnificence and awe of what and who we see.  Walking can give us a sense of belonging, to the place in which we live, to this land, this earth. 

What a walk can do

A morning stride in the dawn light can set an open and calm tone for the day.  Equally, after a long day at work, a walk can help the stress of the shift dissipate. As we walk, we are recharged, and the balance is restored.  We are ready for the next step, the next challenge. This is what walking outdoors can do.

If you want to chat about the thoughts that you’ve been processing on your daily walk, Nurse & Midwife Support is here on 1800 667 877 or by email. We’re here 24/7, free and confidential.