All you need is a pair of sneakers, a safe place to stroll (indoors or out) and 15 minutes today to feel less frazzled.
a photo of two women walking a trail
Credit: Getty Images

If you're feeling burnt out, stretched thin or stressed to the max , you're not alone. In fact, an alarming number of American adults say that they're under so much pressure that their day is definitely derailed as a result.

According to a 2022 Stress in America survey by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association, 34% of 3,192 interviewed adults say stress is "completely overwhelming most days." A whopping 27% say they encounter so much that they can't function normally.

While each generation has its tension instigators, it does seem like this is a particularly tough time for Americans' mental health. With inflation stretching budgets, a never-ending news cycle, unpredictable weather and potential diseases omnipresent (including COVID-19 ), 'tis the season to be stressed, it seems.

Ahead, brush up on stress 101, and learn more about one of the best ways to squelch it: walking. Then get your beginner-friendly walking plan to help you step up your stress-fighting routine. The price is right—$0—and the benefits you'll gain go far beyond the number of steps you rack up. (Although that's a nice bonus!)

What Is Stress?

First things first, not all stress is "bad." Three kinds of stress are the ones that negatively impacts your body and brain:

  • Acute stress: a one-time stressor, such as stubbing your toe.
  • Episodic acute stress: intermittent stress triggers that regularly pop up to trigger a roller coaster of stress, such as a monthly meeting with your "challenging" manager.
  • Chronic stress: ongoing challenges that impact your day-to-day life, like insufficient sleep or a prolonged illness.

There's also "good" stress, referred to as eustress, that triggers a similar reaction within the body but for a good end. Having a baby, buying a house, getting married, starting a new job and even exercising are all examples.

"Stress is something we all experience, and it is important to identify and implement strategies for effectively managing and reducing stress levels. While stress cannot be removed entirely from our lives, we can learn to live better with it," says Chris Gagliardi , an ACE-certified health coach and personal trainer in San Diego.

When experiencing stress, besides having a spike in the "fight-or-flight" hormone adrenaline, your body pumps out more of the stress hormone cortisol. This is essentially the chemical opposite of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin . As such, cortisol alerts your body that now is not the time to rest and digest since more important factors need attention. Elevated cortisol levels can affect your ability to concentrate, multitask and manage emotions, and over time, can play a role in the development of anxiety, lead to digestive issues or overeating, disrupt sleep and contribute to some chronic diseases.

Fascinatingly, one of those eustress-creators, exercise, can also be one of the best remedies for stress.

How Walking Impacts Stress Levels

"All forms of exercise can have a stress-reducing effect. However, exercise itself is a form of stress to the body, and the greater the intensity, the more stress is being done to the body," Gagliardi explains.

While some people truly enjoy more amped-up forms of exercise like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) , lifting weights and running, walking is a very sustainable, affordable, effective and intensity-scalable form of exercise that's not too taxing on the body. (Note: Any form of exercise can help you stress less over time, so feel free to choose your favorite style of activity to swap in for walking in our four-week plan below. Dancing, cycling, boot camp class; you can't go wrong.)

Gagliardi says you'll amplify the stress-relieving benefits of exercise if you take it outside. A March 2020 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research for Public Health found that performing physical activity in nature can substantially improve mental well-being. Furthermore, just 10 minutes of walking—or even simply sitting—in nature can lower stress levels and improve mental health, according to a January 2020 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology .

The gains of going al fresco are so significant that " forest bathing " has become more and more of a trend, and some doctors are even giving patients nature prescriptions, per the American Heart Association .

"Green exercise can add to the normal benefits of walking. If walking indoors is all that's available to you, no sweat. Just try to seek out a window so that you can at least still see outside," Gagliardi says.

A treadmill is also a great option for a walking routine, especially when the weather is not ideal or the outdoor environment is otherwise unsafe for walking, adds Misty Walker , a head coach for STRIDE Fitness in Crown Point, Indiana.

Indoors or out, walking can help manage stress, decrease depression and anxiety, improve emotional health, support cognitive function and mental alertness and boost overall mental health, Gagliardi continues.

"Walking allows certain areas of the brain to activate and other areas to relax to bring about changes in mental state, reduce stress and improve mood," he explains. It's a seesaw effect: "Visualize a 'stress meter' and 'walking meter.' As your stress meter fills up, the negative consequences of stress begin to appear and accumulate. If we begin to fill our 'walking meter,' this leads to a decrease in our 'stress meter.'"

The long-term health benefits of walking include lower risk for cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease, plus better blood sugar and more. But you'll notice the difference soon after you take the first step. A single 10-minute brisk walk may be enough to improve mood, per a July 2018 study published in the journal Health Promotion Perspectives .

To drive home why it's worth it for yourself in real-time, try rating your stress levels (1, low, to 10, high), anxiety levels (1, low, to 10, high) and overall well-being (1, down in the dumps, to 10, overflowing with joy) before a walk, and again after a walk to see what noticeable changes you observe, Gagliardi recommends.

Beyond the stress and physical health gains, walking allows you to step away from other stressors and the omnipresent multitasking of modern life and gives you time to think—and potentially reconnect with a loved one if you opt to sweat with a workout buddy .

How Much—and How Intensely—to Walk to Stress Less

The mental health benefits of exercise are both immediate and long-lasting. After 20 minutes of exercise, cortisol levels decrease, resulting in a better mood and a more positive outlook, Walker says, which is why she designed the walking plan below to start at nearly that mark. As you stick with the program, you should feel more energized and less stressed, experience better sleep and an ovewell-beingand well-being boost.

"To walk at an appropriate intensity to maximize both mental and physical health benefits, aim to walk at an intensity that allows you to talk but not sing. While even a low-intensity or a leisurely stroll can have an impact on mental health, the pace may need to be increased over time to maximize your benefits," Walker says. But listen to your body: "The key is to find the right intensity and environment that is right for you."

You certainly don't want to introduce more stress into your life by pushing too hard.

"The great news is that the most recent physical activity guidelines for Americans make it clear that any amount of physical activity is better than none, and even a short duration provides some health benefit," Gagliardi says. If you find it challenging to sneak in all 30 minutes we call for in week four, "split up your bouts. Try 10 minutes in the morning, 10 after lunch and 10 in the evening. The single-walk duration is not as important as the accumulated time."

Eventually, the goal is to work up to the WHO's recommended physical activity amount of 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week (plus two full-body strength training sessions, if possible).

Easy Walking Plan to Stress Less

"A 30-minute walk five times per week is a great option for general health, stress reduction and overall wellness," Walker says. "I suggest that my clients focus on SMART goals to help make a new routine stick. Ideally, targets should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. A 30-minute walk at a regular time each day is a great goal to work up to for many."

Start with 15 minutes a few times per week, and follow Walker's walking plan below to step things up to half an hour five days in one week—right on target for your recommended seven-day activity level.

Week 1

  • Monday: Rest
  • Tuesday: 15-minute walk
  • Wednesday: 15-minute walk
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: 15-minute walk
  • Saturday: 15-minute walk
  • Sunday: 20-minute walk

Week 2

  • Monday: Rest
  • Tuesday: 20-minute walk
  • Wednesday: 20-minute walk
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: 20-minute walk
  • Saturday: 20-minute walk
  • Sunday: 25-minute walk

Week 3

  • Monday: Rest
  • Tuesday: 25-minute walk
  • Wednesday: 25-minute walk
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: 25-minute walk
  • Saturday: 25-minute walk
  • Sunday: 30-minute walk

Week 4

  • Monday: Rest
  • Tuesday: 30-minute walk
  • Wednesday: 30-minute walk
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: 30-minute walk
  • Saturday: 30-minute walk
  • Sunday: 30-minute walk

The Bottom Line

This low-fuss walking plan to stress less is designed to help decrease cortisol, clear your brain and allow you to step away from the worries of the day.

"The goal is to keep walking stress-free, so regardless of how long or hard you walk, try to keep it manageable and realistic for the amount of time you have available," Gagliardi says. "Adjust the locations of your walks and the intensity—the speed, incline or surface—to make this work for you. Be flexible with yourself and allow yourself to find success in a way that is meaningful to you."

Exercise isn't the only thing to consider regarding your overall stress strat plan. For instance, fruits and veggies provide nutrients that help you lower stress. Even more so, activities like deep breathing and tidying up help relieve stress in 10 minutes or less .

Don't be afraid to ask for help if you feel out of sorts. If you notice any of the following symptoms, reach out to a professional mental health care expert:

  • Difficulty coping with problems or keeping up with daily activities
  • Feeling like things you used to enjoy are lackluster
  • Severe anxiety
  • Prolonged sadness, depression or apathy
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Substance misuse
  • Drastic changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns
  • Extreme mood swings, anger, hostility or violent behavior

If you or a loved one is dealing with a mental health challenge, reach out to SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). The resource provides confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year assistance.