The Powerful Benefits of Mindful Walking

benefits of mindful walking

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a different style of walking – one that isn’t focused on how fast you can go or how high you can get your heart rate up. It’s called mindful walking, also referred to as meditative walking.

I certainly didn’t invent the concept. In fact, there are books written on the topic. But, like any form of walking, it has health benefits. Not only does mindful walking involve movement – and movement is good – but it connects you with the natural world around you. 

Mindful walking is the antithesis of power walking. With power walking, you pump your arms and move your legs as hard as you can – speed demon style. The purpose of power walking is to get into better cardiovascular shape. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the only way. 

This post isn’t intended to slow you down on days you’re getting a cardiovascular workout but to introduce you to another style of walking that also has health benefits, especially if you’re a high-strung person who would benefit from a little inner calm.

I encourage you to continue to exercise in a way that gets your heart rate up a few times a week, but maybe slow it down sometimes and try another approach to walking.

Mindful Walking as a Stress Reliever

The purpose of mindful walking is to relieve stress. Who couldn’t use a little stress reduction? Mindful walking is a way to shift your focus away from the outside world and “reboot” your mind and body so you have more focus and energy.

If you’re sitting at your desk at work struggling to come up with a solution to a problem and the answer just won’t come or feeling so uptight that you’re no longer productive, a 10-minute mindful walk may be all you need to get back on track. I mindful walk myself and can say the benefits, so far, have been extraordinary.

It’s a welcome break from the high- intensity workouts I do most days that leave me soaked in sweat. Plus, mindful walking is accessible to anyone. You don’t have to change clothes or take a shower afterward since the goal isn’t to sweat but to find inner peace.

The best way to do mindful walking, what we also refer to as “meditative” walking, is outdoors where you can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature. Save the treadmill for power walking, jogging, or running. Being outdoors has additional benefits you won’t get from walking on a treadmill.

Walk Your Way to Mental Clarity

According to the University of Michigan, walking outdoors has some of the same benefits as meditation. Although you may find walking outdoors more pleasant in the spring than in the dead of winter, even walking in the cold offers benefits. What type of benefits?

Not only is mindful walking outdoors a way to recharge your batteries, one study found spending time in nature improved memory and attention span by 20%.In terms of stress reduction, mindful walking helps to lower the stress hormone cortisol and stimulates the release of “feel good,” anti-stress chemicals produced by your brain called endorphins.

It simply FEELS good to walk outdoors without focusing on burning calories but on relaxing your mind.While we think of high-intensity exercise as having the most benefits, low-intensity exercise does too.

As Dr. Craig Weber M.D, an expert on high blood pressure points out,

Though the new guidelines favor higher intensity workouts, low to moderate intensity sessions still decrease heart rate, body weight, and blood pressure especially systolic pressure (peak heart rate pressure). As long as your morning or after-dinner walk is at least 10 minutes, you are making a positive contribution to your long-term health.”

Mindful walking may also help reduce cravings for sugary foods, which can come in handy around the holidays when you’re tempted by an irresistible array of holiday treats. Meditation of any type helps build self-control and the ability to walk away from another handful of holiday cookies and slice of pumpkin pe.So, you’re still getting physical health benefits from low-intensity, mindful walks, even if it’s only a brief stroll.

How to Walk Mindfully

Like meditation, mindful walking is all about focus. When you walk, rather than focusing on what you have to do once the walk is over, focus on the sensation of walking – what it feels like when your feet touch the ground. If your mind wonders from that focus, gently bring it back to the movements of your feet. Feel your toes and heels connecting with the earth and the rhythm of your movements as you walk.

meditative walking

Once you’ve mastered this, shift your focus to your breath. Feel the air moving in and out of your mouth or nostrils. If you’re walking outdoors in the winter, note the texture of the cool air as it slides into your airways. Then, shift your focus to your skin – the feeling of the sun shining down on your face or the feeling of cool mist if it happens to be a wet or snowy day.

Embrace Nature

Finally, shift your attention to your surroundings. Soak up the beauty around you – the trees dancing in the wind, the brilliant orange of the sun as it warms the sky. If you’re walking at night, soak up the inky blackness of the nighttime sky and embrace it. You see these things every day, but how often do they register with you? This is your chance to feel a connectedness with nature.

Be sure you’re doing this in a safe place where you won’t be run over by a passing car. Like other forms of meditation, walking meditation is a way to greater awareness. Some people refer to it as “defragmenting” our minds, much like we defrag our computers when they start to run slowly. I’ve also heard people compare mindful walking to “walking yoga.” However you look at it, it’s deeply relaxing once you get the hang of it.

Developing a mindfulness approach to walking, and exercise, in general, can help you overcome the barriers to exercise – like not wanting to do it. Turning walking into a meditative, stress-relieving experience rather than a high-powered sweat session means you’re less likely to find an excuse not to do it and actually WANT to do it.

The Nature Walk

Another way to turn walking into a restorative experience is to take a walk through a park or an area with lots of trees and nature scenes and focus in on the beauty of nature as you walk – hear the sounds and breathe in the sounds of nature without allowing yourself to be distracted. So many of us work in front of a computer or in an office with few windows and were cut off from nature.

Not only is being inside under artificial lights all the time not healthy, it can actually affect our body’s internal clock. During daylight hours, our bodies crave natural light and so few of us get it.

nature walk
Madison (one of our two dogs) on a nature walk. Does she look mindful?

Even a 10-minute walk during the day can have physical and mental health benefits. With this type of walk, your focus is outward, not on your breathing or your footsteps, but on your surroundings and the expansiveness of nature.

The reality is even when we step outdoors for a walk, our minds are so focused on what we have to do afterward that we don’t notice the greenery around us or the cool breeze blowing against our face.

By increasing our awareness, we get closer to nature and that’s one of the best stress relievers there is. By doing this, you also learn to appreciate the vastness of nature and how the problems we think of as so important are actually quite small in the bigger scheme of things.

Take a Gratitude Walk

Another approach is to take a gratitude walk. I read somewhere that we have 7,500 opportunities to practice gratitude every day – with every step we take – but how often do we do that? According to research, you can’t be stressed out and grateful at the same time.

So, a gratitude walk is a chance to break the stress cycle and think about what you’re grateful for. To take a gratitude walk, find a tranquil walking path, in a park or other peaceful area, and think about what you have to be grateful for as you walk.

Even if you’re going through a tough time, you still have things to be grateful for – the support of family or friends, pets, enough food to eat etc. Focus on the things you’re grateful for during your walk. Yes, thoughts really do have power over you. When you focus on what you’re grateful for, rather than your problems, you actually alter your brain chemistry and lower levels of stress hormones.

Thoughts Have Power

The goal of all of this is to step outside yourself and gain a new perspective. According to an article in Psychology Today, every thought releases brain chemicals that affect your actions and how you feel. Expressing gratitude will make you more positive and optimistic. This, in turn, can improve your mental and physical health.

Research shows optimists perform better on the job, have healthier relationships, and live longer. Who can argue with those things?

The Bottom Line

This post is a bit different from most of our posts that focus on nutrition and high-intensity exercise, but you have to balance that by cultivating strong mental and spiritual health – to be a WHOLE, healthy person.

We hope you can use these ways of walking to stay active and to reduce your stress level when you feel like you have too many things going on.

You don’t need a lot to do this – a good pair of walking shoes and a little motivation. Let us know how you do. 🙂

References:

AZ Central. “How to Walk to Relieve Stress”
Huffington Post Healthy Living “National Walking Day: 5 Ways Walking Helps To Relieve Stress”
University of Michigan News. “Going outside—even in the cold—improves memory, attention”
About.com. “Walking for Blood Pressure Maintenance and Weight Control”
Psychology Today. “Walking Meditation: The Perfect Ten Minute Willpower Boost”
Psychology Today. “Happy Brain, Happy Life”

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.