I went for an early morning walk every day - these are the benefits I found after just two weeks

Fed up with doom scrolling to start the day, writer Susan Griffin went out to find the benefits of an early morning walk. Here's what she found after two weeks

Susan Griffin wearing hiking clothes standing on a path, highlighting the benefits of an early morning walk
(Image credit: Future / Susan Griffin)

Before I decided to explore the benefits of an early morning walk, my morning routine typically consisted of waking up bleary-eyed, feeling around the bedside table for my glasses and scrolling on my phone, before padding downstairs for my first cup of coffee.

That's all changed now - and long may it continue. I have been up with the larks over the last 14 days, having challenged myself to walk before breakfast every morning to see if it would put a new spring in my step. 

Like most people, I'm familiar with all the reported benefits of walking - from weight loss and improved muscle strength to reduced stress and better heart health, even those new to exercise will find pulling on a pair of the best walking shoes to be a positive thing. But how long do you need to go for to reap the benefits? And is the early wake-up call worth it? Here's what I discovered.

Benefits of an early morning walk 

1. Improved physical health

People are waking up to the countless benefits of walking, a low-impact exercise often overlooked - and I'm one of them. Although I regularly hike and love doing so - I feel better now in my 40s than I did in my 30s - I tend to go later in the day. It's still beneficial but I have found that morning walks come with unique advantages.

I can feel my muscles and joints loosening up after lying down for hours at night. I feel nourished by being out in the elements, I get my daily dose of vitamin D, and I make better decisions about what I eat and drink throughout the rest of the day by kicking it off in this way. 

But don't just take my word for it - walking is one of the best exercises you can do to support your overall health, studies from institutions like the University of British Columbia show.

"Walking regularly can help you maintain a healthy weight and look after your muscles, bones, heart, circulation, fitness and help you maintain good balance. It's also an excellent way to support your bones in the run-up to and during menopause, helping to reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis. You’re also reducing your risk of developing some health conditions too, like strokes, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, sleep disorders and some cancers,” says Dr Elizabeth Rogers, an associate clinical director at Bupa Health Clinics

Dr Elizabeth Rogers
Dr Elizabeth Rogers

Dr Elizabeth Rogers was previously Lead Physician at Bupa Crossrail and Lead Physician at two of Bupa’s on-site clinics for corporate clients prior to becoming an Associate Clinical Director at Bupa Health Clinics. She qualified from the University of Birmingham in 2007 and is particularly passionate about lifestyle and preventative medicine, and women’s health. 

2. Better sleep

A lack of good sleep is a global problem. A Gallup poll recently found that over half of all Americans say they would feel better if they could get more sleep, so it's fair to say that most of us could do with learning how to sleep better. As someone who has always had trouble sleeping, it's safe to say I'm one of them. Although there isn’t a simple solution, I have found that starting the day with a morning walk helps my body realise it's time to wake up. 

"When you walk outside in the morning, you expose yourself to bright natural light, which is much brighter than any indoor artificial lights, even on a cloudy day. The exposure acts as a cue for your internal body clock and helps your body establish the start of a day, which promotes a more consistent sleep-wake cycle. By reinforcing this cycle, your body is more likely to produce melatonin, a key hormone for regulating sleep, at the right time in the evening - around 10 pm for most adults,” says Ed Gorst, a sleep coach and expert who works with Panda London.

With this in mind, if you want to find all the benefits of an early morning walk, it's best to head out without anything that could stop the natural light from reaching your eyes - such as sunglasses. Regular glasses and other sun protection (like a hat) won't be a problem. 

Ed Gorst
Ed Gorst

Ed Gorst is a sleep coach who focuses on supporting those suffering from insomnia. Having overcome the issue himself, he works with clients using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help them beat their insomnia and sleep better. He works with Panda London.

3. Lowered stress levels

Exercise during the day helps to tire you out physically and regulate your circadian rhythm, as Gorst explains - but there is another element at play when you get your steps in early: lowered stress levels. 

"Physical activity from a morning walk triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural mood elevators. This can help lower your cortisol levels and alleviate any feelings of stress that can interfere with sleep,” says Gorst. 

“Moreover, walking through nature, such as in a park, promotes a sense of calm and mental clarity, setting a positive tone for the day ahead. These benefits can create a cascade effect: as stress levels are better managed during the day, you're more likely to be able to unwind in the evening, leading to more restful sleep," he adds.

I can appreciate this cyclical effect. If I have a bad night’s sleep, I tend to eat worse, move less, feel more strained through the day and then have trouble sleeping again. Starting the day with something as simple as a walk feels life-changing. Not only do I feel less frazzled when putting one step in front of the other, but that feeling filters down through my day so I approach situations from a place of calm rather than simmering agitation. If you're seeing the signs of high cortisol levels in yourself or a loved one, it's something to consider.

Susan Griffin on a morning walk

Susan Griffin started walking early in the morning to boost her mental and physical wellbeing. 

(Image credit: Future / Susan Griffin)

4. A happier mood

We are repeatedly told that walking is important for our mental health. Not only can it ease symptoms of stress and serious mental health conditions like anxiety and depression though, but it can also be a simple way to boost your mood - especially in the spring and summer months when the sun rises earlier in the morning.

“A morning walk also provides time to let our minds wander, which is associated with creativity," says Dr Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. "Going for a walk and taking the time away from stimulation created by our phones and laptops can spark new ideas and thoughts."

But not only that - our brains perform bilateral stimulation as we walk. "This is the process of alternatively stimulating the right and left side of the brain, which forms the basis of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR therapy," she says. "This can have a relaxing effect, decreasing physiological arousal. It can also decrease worry, improve our attention span and effectively clear our heads. That’s why a walk is so good for helping us to feel better, and set us up for the day."

I find a walk in the morning helps shape my day for the better. On busy days, I can mentally prioritize what needs to be done and approach my to-do list clear-headed, energised and motivated. On quieter days, I can revel in the contentment of being alone, letting my mind wander, or I can enjoy a catch-up with friends. Either way, it is a joyful start to the day.

Dr Sandi Mann
Dr Sandi Mann

Dr Sandi Mann joined the Department of Psychology at the University of Lancashire in 1998 as senior lecturer in occupational psychology, after completing her PhD and two master's degrees. She has a varied work background including clinical psychology and journalism. 

5. A morning walk offers consistency in the day

The key to improving your physical and mental wellbeing is to walk consistently. Given that time - or lack of it - is often an excuse for not exercising, morning walks make sense. You can tick off your exercise before most people have made their toast and revel in that knowledge for the rest of the day.

So whether I feel like it or not, I grab my trusty travel mug of tea and head out the door. I walk alone, with my dog and alongside my partner and friends. I hike in the hills and wander along a deserted beach at sunrise and through the local park. Admittedly, some days it's to get going than others - it is trickier to find the motivation when it’s pouring with rain - but whatever the weather, I never regret it and it offers some consistency to my day. 

How long should my morning walk be?

To reap the benefits of a morning walk, try to head out walking for 30 minutes a day as briskly as you can on most days of the week, says Caroline Idiens, a personal trainer of 25 years and founder of online strength training platform, Caroline’s Circuits.

Starting at a light to moderate pace is my advice then, as your fitness progresses, you can take it up to a brisk pace and go power walking, include inclines, or add ankle weights to make your body work that bit harder. Remember to stretch on your return to help with muscle recovery - especially if you're relatively new to daily exercise.

If you can't manage 30 minutes at first, don't worry. As NHS guidelines state: "A brisk 10-minute daily walk has lots of health benefits and counts towards your (recommended) 150 minutes of weekly exercise."

Caroline Idiens
Caroline Idiens

Caroline Idiens is a personal trainer of 25 years and founder of the online strength training platform, Caroline’s Circuits. She is an Instagram sensation and an exercise in midlife expert spreading the word on the importance of strength training and staying strong for longevity.  

Is it good to walk in the morning on an empty stomach?

Several studies suggest walking on an empty stomach in the morning can help get your metabolism working and help burn fat more effectively, so it may be a good option for those looking to try walking for weight loss. For example, research by the Southern Taiwan University of Science and Technology suggests that exercising 'fasted' (i.e. without food) uses more fat for energy. 

However, this comes down to personal preference at the end of the day - the benefits won't be so significant that having a banana before you head out the door on your walk will make much difference. 

Other research (and several experts) also suggest that women in particular should avoid exercise on an empty stomach and that walking after eating has more benefits.

Tips for getting the most out of your morning walk

  • Consistency is key: Set an early alarm and avoid snoozing it, Idiens suggests.
  • Make it as easy as possible to get out the door: Lay your clothes out the night before, ensuring you have supportive trainers and a bottle of water to keep hydrated, she says.
  • Meet with a friend: Organise to meet a friend or take a family member with you, she says. You’ll both feel motivated and accountable to show up, so you're more likely to head out the door and find the benefits of an early morning walk together.
  • Be realistic: When you start out, set realistic goals and time frames to keep your motivation high. Keep a journal and note the distance and time you are walking, says Idiens. 
Susan Griffin

A journalist with two decades of experience, Susan interviewed A-list names in film and TV before going freelance and focusing on health, wellbeing, and lifestyle features. She has since spoken to world-renowned experts on the most innovative and effective ways to look after your mind and body; her work appearing in publications such as Daily Express, Daily Mirror, Metro, Fabulous and The Telegraph. When Susan isn’t working on her laptop, she is most content hiking in the Peak District or finding quiet camping spots to while away a weekend and knows first-hand the restorative benefits of being outdoors.