Not only does walking after eating dinner increase production of the neurotransmitter serotonin (a precursor to the sleep hormone melatonin), but it can also help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and regulate the sympathetic nervous system, both of which can improve your mood, according to functional medicine doctor Jill Carnahan, MD. “Many people feel movement is a powerful way to mobilize and decrease stress and anxiety,” she says.
To get the most relaxation-boosting benefits out of a pre-bedtime walk, there are a few best practices Dr. Carnahan says to keep in mind.
1. If you’re walking outside, what you wear matters
“Dress appropriate for weather so there is no excessive heat or cold, which may increase cortisol and counter the stress-relieving effects of walking after your evening meal,” Dr. Carnahan says.
2. Wait to walk until 20 to 30 minutes after you eat dinner
“[This] may improve digestion and lower blood sugar, two additional benefits,” Dr. Carnahan says. “It’s best to consume a moderate intake of food and avoid alcohol or overindulgence prior to walking.”
3. Skip the power walk pace
While there is a time and place to pick up the pace while walking, before going to sleep is not it. Working out too intensely in the evening can elevate your body temperature and spike cortisol, both of which will make it harder to fall asleep. “Low to moderate intensity is ideal to lower stress levels and avoid raising cortisol levels before bed,” Dr. Carnahan says. Being able to talk comfortably while you walk is one way to tell that you’re moving at a good pace. She says to aim for 30 to 60 minutes of strolling at this intensity.
4. Make it a feel-good stroll
If you want to prime your body even more before bedtime, Dr. Carnahan says there are a few things you can do that’ll further boost your feel-good hormones and mood. “Adding calming or positive music to headphones can enhance the experience, or specifically using binaural beats may add additional benefit by increasing parasympathetic system and vagal tone,” she says. “These things counter the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ system.”
And if you can bring along a walking buddy (two- or four-legged is fine), even better. “Walking with pet, friend, or loved one offers additional benefit of social connection, which has been shown as one of the factors to increase longevity,” Dr. Carnahan says. The more the merrier.
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