The STEPN Guide to Physical, Mental and Social Health
This STEPNEMBER our initial focus is Before/After success stories from the STEPN Community. Good health is crucial to living a good life. Chuck Pagano, former NFL head coach and football player, phrased it well when he stated:
“If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.”
During the pandemic, the state of our health surged to the front of the world’s collective consciousness. It wasn’t like we didn’t know it was important before — everyone can intuitively understand the importance of your health… but sometimes you need a little nudge to truly grasp what you’re taking for granted.
Seeing the world gripped by sickness, a newfound gratitude for health and the ability to be active pushed many to go outdoors and exercise more. Activities like hiking, biking, and other sports saw a surge in interest throughout the height of COVID. In particular, walking and running had a bonafide renaissance. Many countries reported a walking “boom” during the lockdown, especially as gyms closed and other forms of exercise were temporarily paused.
Today, many people are continuing to walk and run, but it can be tough to maintain that habit on your own. Pushing people to continue to walk and run outside and together, STEPN knows that the benefits of these things are threefold — for your physical, mental, and social health.
In this article, we’ll be examining the positive impacts in all three of these realms.
The most evident benefit of walking outside more is the direct impact on your physical health.
A study from researchers at the WHO found that more than a quarter of adults don’t get enough physical activity. This is an urgent issue, as up to 5 million premature deaths every year could be prevented if the world population were more active.
Meanwhile, regular exercise can significantly decrease your risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, and even type 2 diabetes while improving cardiovascular fitness. And it doesn’t need to be vigorous exercise — simply walking 30 minutes every day can significantly boost cardiac health, boost stamina, and raise your energy levels.
Now, upholding your physical health isn’t limited to exercise. Diet and nutrition are inextricably linked to good physical health — and exercising more has been proven to help you make healthier eating choices. A study following an exercise program found that physical fitness can have a profound effect on eating preferences — after working out more, men and women no longer found high-calorie and fatty foods so irresistible. In other words, physical activity actually brought on the double benefit of helping people break out of bad habits and whet their appetite for healthier foods.
What else? Quality sleep is also a crucial pillar of physical fitness. Even if you’re exercising regularly and eating a well-balanced diet, sleep deficiency can take a huge physical toll on your body, from reduced immune system response to increased cortisol from stress — which leads to chronic health problems and increase your odds for heart and blood disease, along with digestive issues and inflammation.
Today, insufficient sleep is becoming a pervasive problem in the 21st century, particularly with the prevalence of the 24-hour news cycle and the rise of screens. In the US, 25% of adults report having bad sleep at least 15 out of every 30 days and over 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder.
And guess what can help with getting good sleep? You guessed it — regular physical activity. Studies have found that walking is positively associated with improved sleep, with more steps linked to better quality sleep duration, quality, and latency (the time it takes to fall asleep).
Another foundation of well-being, mental health goes hand-in-hand with physical health. And just like physical health, mental health is made up of various components — behavioural, emotional, and cognitive.
Again, moderate and regular exercise like walking or running has countless benefits on many behavioural health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. Researchers from Harvard University reported that just an hour of walking every day could cut the risk of depressive feelings by 26%.
What about the other aspects of mental health? Distinct from behavioural health, emotional health describes one’s ability to cope with positive and negative emotions, to handle the ups and downs of life and foster resilience and overall positivity and contentment. Without good emotional health, our mind can be wracked with a chronic spiral of negative thoughts, impacting our body just as much as any physical ail — weakening immunity, taking a toll on digestive health, and straining our heart health.
Time and time again, regular exercise has been found to be a powerful tool in building emotional stamina, improving confidence and self-esteem, and lowering stress levels. A study investigating the direct link between physical and emotional fitness found that just two months of consistent exercise, such as aerobic jogging and mindfulness-based yoga, improved implicit emotional regulation capacities.
Finally, there’s cognitive health — your ability to think clearly, learn, and retain memories. These include executive and higher order functions such as goal-setting, planning and judgment, and decision-making. In layman’s terms — staying sharp and alert, having a good memory, mental clarity and thinking. Again, physical health is the foundation here. Studies have drawn links between aerobic exercise and boosted size in the brain area associated with verbal memory and learning. And, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published findings that a 30-minute morning walk helps older adults improve their thinking skills, memory, and clarity.
Last but certainly not least, social health is key to forming rewarding and healthy relationships with others.
Today, social health is arguably more important than ever, as loneliness has become an epidemic. According to Gallup’s 2022 Global Emotions report, a staggering 330 million adults go for weeks without talking to a single friend or family member. And loneliness has major health risks as well — social isolation and less interactions lead to physiological changes, even leading to increased risk for all-cause mortality.
There are many physical, mental, and social benefits of exercise, but you don’t often hear about the social aspects, such as what meeting new people and learning new skills together can do for you.
Working out with others can provide motivation and accountability. A study looking at a group of seniors found that those who exercised in a group setting massively improved their self-efficacy (their belief in their ability to execute a behaviour) as well as outcome expectations. Moreover, social exercise can also promote healthy competition, raising the bar for everyone in the group and inspiring each other to keep a diligent workout habit.
This is the basis of competitive formats like virtual running races and competitions, and billion dollar companies like Strava. Finally, community is the last social health benefit — doing something as simple as taking a walk with someone can form stronger bonds and relationships, as you share an experience and an endorphin rush from getting active.
As we discussed, COVID brought the state of our health to the forefront of our minds. But it shouldn’t take a pandemic to keep us moving and active. Regular physical activity is essential for our well-being, affecting all facets of our physical, mental, and social lives in surprising ways.