Mind-Body Walking: Medicine for Body and Spirit
by Karen Asp
Stress follows you everywhere, even into your workouts, and its voice is powerful. It reminds you how much stuff you have to do and how many things you have been putting off. It is the nemesis that drags your body down, making you feel sluggish, convincing you that your workout is hard. If only you could dump your stress. Take a break. Your plate is too loaded, though. Time is precious. Unless you combine a workout for your body with a workout for your mind, you can do just that with mind-body walking.
Henry David Thoreau was aware of mind-body walking more than 100 years ago when he wrote, "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."
Gloria Keeling, president of Fitness Professionals International in Maui and a mind-body expert, offers this definition of a mind-body workout: "It's exercise with an internal component. That could mean focusing on breathing while strength training or listening to the rhythm of the water while swimming." Walking just happens to provide one of the greatest vehicles for melding mind with body. "We're wired to walk," says Carolyn Scott Kortge, author of The Spirited Walker and a master's level racewalker.
What Is Mind-Body Walking?
Kortge describes mind-body walking as spirited walking. "It's walking that's spirited in pace and thought," she says. "It's aerobic mindfulness."
In other words, it is something you are probably not used to doing. If you are like most people, your mind never stops doing chores, even when you exercise. You know all too well how high you have loaded your plate, and so while you are exercising, thoughts clang in your head.
"For decades, we've engaged in mindless exercise," Kortge says. "And we all talk to ourselves as we exercise. Spirited walking means becoming aware of that talk and choosing to stop it."
Turning Off the Mental Chatter
Kortge remembers when she first chose to stop her mental chatter. At 46, she encountered walking as an aerobic activity and challenged her body to achieve a 12-minute-mile pace. She did. She began racing, which taught her why she needed to work her mind and body together.
"I kept telling myself I wasn't doing well," Kortge says. "I had to learn how to stop that." Now at 57, though she no longer races, she walks with greater awareness. "I understand that there's an exciting connection between who I am mentally and physically," she says. "Rather than being enemies, we're allies."
What Can Mind-Body Walking Do for You?
Learning to Focus
So how do you take a spirited walk? By tuning out the mindless chatter in your head and focusing. Focusing while you walk, though, takes practice. "It takes time to learn to concentrate, to be in the moment," Keeling says. "Your mind will probably wander in a million different directions, but keep pulling it back."
Kortge also admits that it is hard to focus for an entire workout. So set a goal of focusing for 5-10 minutes at a time. You do not have to do this every workout. In fact, Kortge advises varying your workouts. If you walk with buddies, make a pact to walk in silence for a short stretch. Kortge also recommends leaving the headphones behind or at the very least, listening to instrumental music.
Activities to Bring Mind and Body in Tune
To experience mind-body walking, try adding these activities to your walks:
The health benefits of walking. The Department of Cambridge Community Development website. Available at: http://www2.cambridgema.gov/cdd/et/ped/ped_hlth.html. Accessed December 16, 2011.
Kortge C. The Spirited Walker: Fitness Walking for Clarity, Balance, and Spiritual Connection. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco; 1998.
Last reviewed December 2011 by Brian Randall, MD