Network Blog

Reflections on fitness, wellness, health and more

This is the wonder drug for mental and physical wellbeing

This blog post was written by Diane Westaway, Founder and CEO of Wild Women On Top.

If I was to tell you about a drug that improves mood, productivity, physical and mental health, memory, sleep and sex drive, reduces stress, anxiety, lethargy and age-related cognitive decline and can be used to treat anxiety and depression with no negative side effects, would you take it? Undoubtedly, right?

What if I told you that administering the drug required effort and time? Less likely, hey?
Well, I’m talking about physical activity. Don’t roll your eyes and stop reading.

Because I have a way to make the physical activity so much fun, as well as friendly and easy, that you won’t believe it’s doing more good for you than most medications. And it absolutely won’t feel like another chore to add to your endless to-do list.

First, let’s make something clear: there’s no question that movement is fabulous for our physical and mental health, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety and boosting feelings of wellbeing in mentally healthy people. There are plenty of peer-reviewed journals and mental health organisations championing the benefits of physical activity for mental health. It’s not controversial, it’s fact. We feel joy when we’re active because our body is releasing hormones such as serotonin and endorphins, which make us feel better.

Most of us live in a world that’s no longer suited to our biology. Our biology performs best when moved about often. Without movement, our brains and bodies wither and wane with symptoms such as bad moods, stress, disease and, sometimes, mental illness. If there’s other sh*t going on in your life as well, this compounds the problem.

When this happens, we generally look to doctors and drugs to fix us. And many doctors oblige immediately because that’s what they’re trained to do. They want to fix you, fast.

But drugs might not be the best or only option for many people. And I don’t think they should always be the first port of call.

Physical activity should be used as part of a treatment plan for people experiencing a range of symptoms, from stress and general ‘blahness’ to depression and debilitating anxiety. And the friendliest funnest type of physical activity I can find, after 30 years of searching, is hiking with friends.

I work with hundreds of women who use hiking with friends as therapy. Many of them have used hiking as a tool to prevent, reduce or eliminate their reliance on anti-depressant drugs, and they’re thrilled. I’m not suggesting all drugs are bad, but if there’s a better way without the myriad negative side effects, let’s do it.

But why hiking with friends? Hiking is walking in nature. Everybody can walk and nature is the best gym. We are nature. Hiking reconnects us with the earth, it’s fun, it’s social and it has a purpose, so it doesn’t feel like exercise. Also, it gets you moving naturally. Plus you get the health benefits of fresh air, sunlight and nature.

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said ‘walking is man’s best medicine.’ I say, ‘hiking is man and woman’s best medicine.’

A recent study published in Frontiers in Public Health, shows that physical activity in nature can prevent, delay, or alleviate the mental health components of chronic disease.

This paper looks at a pile of studies on Nature, Eco and Adventure Therapies. What all these therapies do, in addition to distracting us from our brooding ruminating thoughts, is to help improve our mood and build grit and resilience.

And hiking is the simplest adventure therapy you can find.

Recently, my client Rose said, ‘Since I’ve been hiking regularly with a supportive community I’m off my medication and so much happier’. Journalist and public figure Sarah Wilson has written and spoken extensively about how she uses hiking as part of her treatment for anxiety. My daughter, who was diagnosed with severe depression earlier this year, has used hiking – along with therapy and other lifestyle changes – to completely eliminate her symptoms. Medication can be lifesaving for some, but isn’t the only option for many. 

For those of us who don’t have a mental illness but whose busy minds just never stop buzzing, a 30-minute walk with friends in nature can be the best quick fix of all.

Let’s not dismiss the proven benefits of physical activity for people experiencing mental illness because if we do, we’re missing an opportunity to help lots of people feel better with good old-fashioned movement in nature.

Like Hippocrates, also said: ‘If you feed the body well and move it often, it heals itself.’
We know lifestyle factors such as movement, sleep, stress, sitting, nutrition and relationships impact on our mental health, so let’s prescribe them rather than offering them as an afterthought.

Dr David Katz says, ‘Lifestyle medicine can deliver an 80% reduction in the risk of chronic disease and no other medicine can match that.’

If there was a pill that did that, we’d all be taking it. Let’s give the wonder-drug that is hiking the attention it deserves and see what happens. I believe we’ll all enjoy a happier, healthier world.
Back to Blog