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How Does Walking Meditation Make Your Brain Better?

We avoid the most difficult parts of most challenges—the last eight percent. But adding even a little mindful movement to your day can help you defeat anxiety, rumination, and stress.

By
Brock Armstrong
11-minute read
Episode #498
Photo of Dr. JP Pawliw-Fry
The Quick And Dirty
  • Going for a 15-20 minute walk can literally help your brain "be better"
  • Doing a walking meditation can help build your emotional intelligence
  • When your body is idle, your brain ruminates about the past, worries about the future, and engages in comparison to others

I've talked about how movement and exercise can have a direct effect on our mental health. My guest on today's episode is a bit of an expert in that area. 

Back in 1998, today's guest, Dr. J.P. Pawliw-Fry, co-founded the Institute for Human Health and Potential, or the IHHP, as a research-based training company to help create leaders and transform organizations. J.P. is also a New York Times bestselling author who works with Olympians, NFL teams, Navy SEALs, and also a who's who of Fortune 500s to help them thrive in the midst of change.

Recently, J.P. started The Last 8% Morning Project to found a community where he could help people deal with their most difficult decisions during the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, this community helps listeners engage with other community members to realize that they're not alone in the challenges that they face in this uncertain time. I listened to a few of J.P.'s episodes and I really identified with his outlook on movement and mental health. I'm excited to have him here today on the Get-Fit Guy podcast to share some of that info with you all.

The following is a transcription of our chat. As always, I would you to press play on the audio player above so you don't miss any of the fun!

J.P., welcome to the Get-Fit Guy podcast.

Oh, absolutely. My pleasure to be here, Brock. Thank you for having me.

I can't wait to pick your brain. But to start off, I'm sure the listeners are wondering from the intro that I just gave you—what is The Last 8%? Why have you created a whole podcast and project around only eight percent instead of the other 92 percent?

Yeah, that's a great question. The "last eight percent moment" is a moment or situation that is more difficult than the usual ones we face in the course of a day, a week, a month, or, in COVID-19's case, a lifetime. These are situations where we struggle.

It came out of the work we have done at our organization. We survey 40,000 people a month, and it came out of that research where we're pretty good at 85, 90, or even 92 percent of (most of) the situations we're faced with.

The 'last eight percent moment' is a moment or situation that is more difficult than the usual ones we face in the course of a day, a week, a month, or, in COVID-19's case, a lifetime.

Let's say, Brock, you and I are having a conversation. And let's say it's a feedback conversation. I'm pretty good at giving you feedback or having a conversation with you up to about 85, 90, 92 percent. But when I get to that last eight percent, the hard stuff, the hardest part of the conversation, you start to see where the conversation is going. You're not pleased about that. You're starting to get a bit triggered and emotional, and then you infect me with your emotion. And then, as opposed to approaching that last eight percent, I avoid that last eight percent. That's where the research came from.

But we've also found that it's not just the last eight percent of conversations that we avoid. It's also the last eight percent of decisions. So then we thought, "Hey, you know, the reason people struggle with that last eight percent is a lack of emotional intelligence. Emotions get in the way."

What we know is that each of us falls into what's known as a "predictable default behavior." That is, we either get a bit anxious, fearful, and we want to be perfect and we avoid. So, the first one is we avoid, or the second one is we get a bit frustrated or angry and we make a mess. Those are the two predictable default behaviors. So that's the challenge. And it's really about managing emotions in order to step in and have those "last 8%" conversations, [or make those] decisions, or [tackle the last eight percent of] any situation.

So the podcast, The Last 8% Morning, is all about how can we systematically, bit by bit, build emotional intelligence so we can be better in those most challenging moments.

It is really fascinating stuff. There's actually a theory—not to totally go off on my own little rant here. I hate to do that when I have such an interesting guest, but this ties in really well. There's a theory called the Central Governor Theory. Say, you're lifting weights or you're doing sprints or something. There's a point when your body starts to tell you "Okay, that's enough. You can stop now." Or "You're putting yourself in danger. This is too hard. You're going to overheat, or you're going to bonk, or whatever." And your brain starts to shut your body down. So, it sounds like this extends into all realms of life.

It really does. And what's interesting is that most people aren't even aware of it. And yet we get frustrated because we avoid, we make a mess, and then our relationships aren't as solid or as well functioning as we'd like them to be.

That is fascinating stuff. We could spend the whole time talking about this, but I promised the audience that we would get into the whole mental health aspect of movement and exercise. 

So in one of the episodes I listened to of your podcast, you talked about the importance of movements. Can you outline what you believe in, what you highlighted in that episode, and why you think we humans need movement in our day?

Sure. Here's the thing. As opposed to waking up and looking at your phone—which only spikes cortisol and is not good for our health, right? What we want to do is suggest that you get up and you go for a walk. My actual podcast integrates movement—going for a walk—mindfulness and mental training exercises. So we say go for 15- to 20-minute walk. Because what we know is if you do a moderate walk at 15 to 20 minutes, you start to get some of the effects of myokines.

Now myokines are essentially proteins—or pre-proteins— but they're proteins that get spit out into your bloodstream by your muscles when you exercise. And because of their particular size and shape, they can cross the blood-brain barrier. They go to work on your brain and they literally help your brain be better. In three specific ways, they work with a few other chemicals, but these are really specific to myokines three specific things.

  1. They make you more stress-resilient. They affect the neural pathways in your brain and you become more stress-resilient.
  2. You actually enjoy moments more from the myokine effect. Your pleasure centers get lit up so you actually enjoy your moments more. I think we've all had that after we exercise, we kind of feel kind of some different experience that's more pleasurable. So we can experience pleasure more.
  3. You actually feel more trusting of others, which helps you collaborate more. It helps us build better relationships. We give people the benefit of the doubt.

The biggest muscle we have is our quadriceps muscle. So we think of it as an internal pharmacy of the thigh.

And so those three specifics come from the fact that we walk for 15 or 20 minutes. And you probably know this Brock, but the biggest muscle we have is our quadriceps muscle. So, we think of it as an "internal pharmacy of the thigh." And so, as opposed to someone taking the drugs that we all take to make ourselves feel better,  instead you can turn on the drugs that come from inside of you. 

I love that "the internal pharmacy of the thigh."

IPT.

There you go—I love it. And it sounds like—and this is something that I bring up a lot on the Get-Fit Guy podcast—the idea that you don't have to join a CrossFit gym, you don't have to sign up for anything crazy. Just going for a walk can give you all of these benefits. How long did you say? Fifteen or 20 minutes?

Yeah. Fifteen to 20 minutes of moderate exercise. So you can just slowly walk, at a decent—not a fast pace, but a moderate pace.

You don't have to do crazy amounts of high-intensity workouts.

But here's the thing. I think you hit on something really important for anyone listening. You don't have to do crazy amounts of high-intensity workouts. Now, having said that, I walk a lot and I also do HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts. So I still do that, but it's not the only thing I do. And those two workouts work on different energy systems. So the point is, if we just did 15 or 20 minutes of walking a day, that would be a fantastic thing! And of course, the other piece in all of this is that we're also helping you build a mindfulness practice.

A lot of people have trouble sitting and meditating or sitting and doing mindfulness. We actually build it into the walking and people love that. In fact, that's some of the best feedback we've gotten on this podcast. And then the final piece is like, literally (and you know this) we drop an idea, every podcast. So people are growing their learning around how to build their emotional intelligence, how to be courageous, how to be bold, because we don't want to kind of end this life feeling some regret. Like we didn't take our chances, like we played small. And so we're really there to help you. We're there to guide you, to kind of take on your biggest challenges, your last eight percent, and use those to transform yourself into the person you want to become.

So it sounds like the podcast itself (if you're doing this in the morning and you're actually listening to it while you're going for a walk) is really a moving meditation.

This is movement-based mindfulness or movement-based meditation.

That's it, that's a great way to think about it. People struggle with meditation, but they know that it's helpful. So I talk about the value of doing mindfulness for the brain, but people struggle with it. So this is movement-based mindfulness or movement-based meditation. Absolutely.

Could you explain to the listeners right now how they could actually, tomorrow morning, get up and do a moving meditation? What do you need to do to have that happen?

Yeah, we call it the BBIIGG acronym. So get up in the morning and then, as opposed to looking at that darn phone, just say "Okay, I'm not gonna look at the phone. I'm going to get up, make my bed (that's the first B), put my shoes on, go for a walk for 15 to 20 minutes. And then be mindful of your belly and your body (that is the second B). Then we have one of two Is and one of two Gs (to fill out the BBIIGG acronym). So, one of the Is is idea-of-the-day or strengthening-identity. This is a big thing we do with Olympic athletes, NBA, NFL teams. So then one of the Gs (we pick it different one every session) is either gratitude or goals.

But the idea is that you just get up in the morning, don't look at your phone, make your bed, put your shoes on, put me in your ear (because it's actually my morning routine too). It's actually pretty simple. Just get up and go for a walk and put the earphones in your ear and that's all you have to do and just let my podcast take the rest take care of itself.

Well, it sounds like even if you're not a podcast listener you could get up, make your bed, put your shoes on, go for a walk and think about things that you're grateful for from the day before or something like that.

You could get up, make your bed, put your shoes on, go for a walk and, and think about things that you're grateful for from the day before.

Yeah, but let me just say this because my son, my 17-year-old son said, "Dad, you've got this totally wrong in its branding. It shouldn't be called The Last 8% Morning." Because what we're finding our users are using it at all times of the day, some at lunch, some after work. In fact, this is interesting, because we're working from home so much, some people are doing this before they start work. They do this 15-minute walk, and it becomes the buffer or the bridge between personal and work.

And then when they finish work, they do the same thing but in the opposite order. They go and do another 15-minute "morning routine." And when they come back, they don't think about work. So it's a way to create a bit of structure because it's hard right now with COVID-19. This is hard. So, if you're struggling with working at home, if you're feeling stressed, this might be the best antidote.

That sounds like a great antidote. We need some sort of routine to split up the day and to really signal to ourselves that work is over. Now, it's time to relax. And this time is yours.

Okay. So we talked about the benefit of movement, but I know I've heard you talk about the sort of deleterious effects of the sedentariness that life has brought, especially during COVID-19 (but really just any time in the recent past) and you talked about a thing called the default mode network. Could you explain that?

Well, here's the thing. Like for any of us, when our brain is idle, when our brain is left to its own devices—we're not working, we're not really doing any activity, we just kind of idle our brain—actually, the posterior part of our brain gets turned on. That's called the DMN (default mode network). And it is engaged in three activities.

  1. It ruminates about the past. Maybe on something that didn't go well.
  2. It worries about the future. Something that is yet to come.
  3. It gets engaged in social comparison.

And all three of those things cause us stress and anxiety. And so, one of the reasons why you want to get out and walk is that research has shown that even just going outside and standing in a forest, literally turns off your DMN, which sounds crazy, but it's true.

So that's why we say, go for a walk. Or even better, go for a walk in a forest or a grassy area. But if you can't, it's still going to help your brain be at its best. 

So it sounds like if we catch ourselves sitting around and we catch ourselves having those thoughts of comparing ourselves to people on social media or start to have catastrophic thoughts about what's going to happen tomorrow at work or next week, then we should just get up and get out the door and go for a walk. Could we do this around our living room if we don't have the opportunity to go outside?

It's so interesting that you say that because for a time during COVID my daughter, Bridget (producer on the podcast) said, "Dad, remember there's some people who aren't able to move." So you might notice, Brock, in my instructions on the podcast, I say, "move as you are able" for exactly that reason, it's very sensitive that you kind of picked that up.

So in fact, there are times when people walk in their houses and they literally put on the podcast and they walk back and forth in their house and they're getting movement. They may not be getting out into the green, where it turns off the DMN, but just by doing mindfulness, you actually are turning off the DMN anyway. So it's kind of going to take care of that anyway.

But yes, move, as you are able to. In fact, we have some listeners who go on a rowing machine or an elliptical machine, and maybe there are other things they've been doing. I will say that some people have said "Oh, I just listened to it from my desk." And I just say to them, "Don't listen then." Honestly, the whole design is to increase movement.

And by the way, I love your podcasts because you're talking about all these important things, about how we want to integrate movement into our day. And so this is an important way to do it. So don't listen to this while you're at your desk or you're in your car listening to while you're moving.

Well, that's a great place to wrap things up, but I can't let you go until you let everybody know where they can find the podcast, you, the project, and everything.

So, Last 8% Project, it's a Facebook group. So please come join us there.

The podcast itself is called the Last 8% Morning. It's on any of the great platforms.

You can LinkedIn with me, I accept LinkedIn friend requests or whatever.

Our website is IHHP.com.

Wonderful. Well, thank you very much, J.P., for coming on the Get-Fit Guy podcast, it was great to get your perspective on this stuff.

My pleasure! Absolutely, Brock. And keep up the great work you're doing.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.