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Mental Health Week runs from Sunday 9 – Saturday 15 October, 2016 but for millions of Australians anxiety and depression or feeling flat, helpless or hopeless is the new normal.

Last year’s National Health Survey showed that stress and mental illness affect one in five Australians, and costs us over $200 billion dollars.

Mental Health is a complex issue and those with depression need professional help. But lifestyle medicine is a solution to chronic disease and science proves that one of the key things that can help our mood is exercise. But when you’re depressed,nexercise is the last thing you want to do.

Physical activity is a high priority for mental health support groups such as the Black Dog Institute and Beyond Blue. Dr Jason Kaplan says, “exercise and relaxation are the most powerful anti-depressants available.”

But it’s still tough to get moving when you’re in a bad spot. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said “Walking is man’s best medicine.” But a key factor stopping many of us from feeling joy is that when we’re feeling down it takes extraordinary motivation and discipline to get ourselves to moving.

Di Westaway, Adventure Health Expert and CEO at Wild Women On Top, has a solution. Her organisation is hell bent on helping women get off the couch and into nature to feel joy. She said “When most people think exercise, they think pain. Exercising regularly is really hard to do. We know it’s good for us but we just can’t do it because we’re either too busted or too busy. But walking with friends in the outdoors is fun and has tremendous benefits for mental health.

Most of my clients say walking is more about the mind than the body and some even use it to treat worry, anxiety and depression. But it’s scientifically proven by thousands of studies that walking in nature is a big fat health pill,” said Westaway.

Walking adventures don’t require technical skill or equipment which makes them accessible to all. The adventure is enjoyable for beginners and it can be done by overweight people. But we get more motivated to walk if we do it with friends for a cause, which is why Coastrek is so popular, says Westaway.

And Westaway should know. Since her Coastrek, 30-60km Team Trekking Challenge events began eight years ago, nearly 20,000 people, mostly women, have walked with friends in nature. Seventy percent of them say they feel awesome.

Health Director of the CSIRO, Dr Robert Grenfell, agrees. “Motivation, or lack of it, is one of the handbrakes that stop us from exercising. An effective way of building and sustaining motivation to exercise is to set a goal and do it with a group. A walking event like Coastrek challenges a number of these barriers – you have a goal, you are doing it with a group of friends and there’s a plan.”

“Walking in nature appears to be better for you than exercising in a gym. When you are outside you have the wind, sunshine, trees, birds and things that make you feel good inside. This is great for your mental wellbeing.”

Science shows that exercise changes our thought patterns in beneficial ways. Often we may feel irritable or blue and see nothing we can do about the situation. Then we are amazed at what simply going for a half-hour walk will do. Although our situations don't change, we are changed in how we respond to them.

Last year a Stanford-led study found quantifiable evidence that walking in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression. The study found neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature. A 2015 meta-study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine had researchers analyse 42 studies from around the world and found that study participants who engaged in outdoor walking groups we’re significantly less depressed.

Going for a walk with friends in the outdoors declutters our minds and after a while our thoughts get clearer. Science has demonstrated that many serious cases of depression respond just as well to a program of vigorous daily exercise as to traditional treatment say experts at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

A lot of what passes for depression these days is nothing more than a body saying that it needs work. —Geoffrey Norman

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