We know exercise is good for the body, but did you know that walking is magical for the mind, too? Join the Savvy Psychologist for a mindful stroll through the psychological benefits of walking.
Recently, I had gone through a bout of stress - I had taken on too much work, injured my back, and was generally feeling out of touch with myself. I’ll admit that there were times when I was preaching the importance of self-care to a crowd...in the middle of a 60-hour work week. And the clumps of stress in my body were getting tighter.
This might sound familiar to you. Many people have been experiencing burnout for the past year and a half, and the mental health effects are starting to catch up. I’ve been hearing from many Savvy Psychologist listeners about experiencing poor sleep, having short fuses, feeling exhausted but also bored at the same time...what a hot mess we’ve all been!
Guess what pulled me out of this spiral?
That's right, I took my dog on a long walk along the Eno River. When I started, I was mentally planning work projects and stressing out. But then, a great blue heron landed in the water right beside me, and it was so beautiful that I burst into tears. After that, I allowed myself to breathe, to feel the movement of my body, to smile at my dog…and so began my lift out of burnout.
I want to share the magic of walking with you, too. For today’s episode, let’s do something a little different. In addition to listing science-based benefits of walking, I’ll also informally talk you through a mindful walk.
So, if you’d like, you can take this podcast episode for a walk and follow along. Let’s lace up those sneakers and get going!
Start with breath. Wherever you’re walking, let’s start to become mindful by noticing your breath as you walk. No need to change it in any way. No need to count or manipulate the way you breathe. No need to judge whether you’re breathing too fast or wonder what this means. We’re just here to follow along with what the body naturally does.
Walking makes you less angry
Have you ever had an explosive argument with someone and felt so angry you had to just leave the house and start walking? Well, that’s a good instinct! Walking does actually calm anger.
One simple study that put people on a four-week daily walking plan. Not everybody actually walked as much as they were supposed to, but still, participants’ heart rates slowed, and they were feeling less anger and hostility by the end.
Notice your feet. Now that you’ve settled into your breath, let’s expand our attention to the feet. No need to move any faster or slower, or change their movement in any way. Simply notice the ground underneath your feet. Notice any sensations on the skin, in your arches, on your toes. Don’t judge the sensations as good or bad. Just explore what they are with curiosity.
Walking makes you less depressed
We are not just less angry after walking. We have happier moods, too. A study of ethnic minority women encouraged participants to go walking however much they could handle. After just two months, those who walked more felt significantly less depressed. This is pretty remarkable for such a simple “treatment”!
Notice your legs and hips. Now let’s move our attention up to our legs and hips. Notice the sensations in your muscles and joints as they move. Notice any aches or pressures or itches. A yoga teacher once told me that we hold much of our stress in our hips. Notice if this is true for you. Again, no need to judge your body or its sensations as good or bad. We’re simply noticing.
Walking makes you less tired
You may be thinking to yourself - walking is nice, but I’m so tired after a long day of work and I just need to lie down! If you do very vigorous physical work or stand all day, this may very well be true. But know that feeling tired is sometimes from being too sedentary and too bored - the less you move, the more tired you may feel! Walking is a nice, low-key way to re-energize. In fact, that same walking study with ethnic minority women found that those who walked more actually felt like they had more “vigor.”
Notice your upper body. Now that you’re probably settled into a steady walking pace, let’s expand our attention to the rest of our bodies. Notice any sensations in your body with curiosity. Follow along with the rhythmic movements of your torso as you walk and breathe. Notice the way your muscles move (or don’t) in your shoulders and neck. If you’re catching any unpleasant sensations, don’t try to ignore them or change them. Simply breathe into these sensations and allow your non-judgmental mind to ask: What does it feel like? If the sensation had a color, what would it be? If it had a shape, what would it be? Watch the sensation wax and wane as you walk.
Walking helps you tap into the positive spiral of mindfulness
“Forest bathing” - a Japanese concept of walking in nature - gives your immune system a boost, makes you mentally sharper, and makes you less stressed. And in the UK, a study has found that just one visit to a National Trust site - a place of natural and heritage value, such as a historic house or botanical garden - made people feel less stressed and gave them higher self-esteem.
That’s likely in part because walking can help you tap into the positive spiral of better mood and more mindfulness, which means to be grounded in the here-and-now . This means you can literally walk your way out of a bad mood or a rumination spiral, and instead, step into groundedness and relaxation.
Notice your surroundings. As we keep walking, let’s expand our attention to our surroundings. Whether you’re walking in the concrete jungle or along a forest path, you are surrounded by sights, sounds, and smells. Take a moment to notice one thing you can see with your eyes - something you hadn’t noticed before. Now see if you can notice one sound you weren’t paying attention to. Can you smell anything? The faintest hint of leaves or soil, or perhaps gasoline or food? No need to judge any of these sensations as good or bad - we’re just here with curiosity.
Walking is good for sleep
And of course, we can’t forget about “the balm of hurt minds, the chief nourisher in life’s feast” - sleep. This is one of the great pillars of physical and mental health, and the great news is that walking helps here, too. In fact, in a group of older women, walking on the treadmill for 50 minutes one time led to better quality sleep for at least the next two nights. If we make a habit of walking, there are even bigger benefits. Young adults who walked for about an hour per day for four weeks slept significantly more, had better quality sleep, had fewer sleep problems, and even used fewer sleep medications. So if you’re walking right now, you can feel great knowing that you’re taking care of your sleep, which will help you with everything else.
Notice your emotions. As we finish walking together, now fully grounded in our bodies and surroundings, let’s expand our attention one more time. This time, let’s notice our emotions. Where to look? Notice sensations in your chest and belly. Wiggle your face and see where the tensions are, if there are any. Breathe into those sensations. Do you feel happy? Sad? Irritated? Proud? Peaceful? Anxious? No matter what comes up, let it. Watch it rise up like a wave and let it roll through your body. Don’t try to change the emotion, or judge it as good or bad. Just keep walking, and let the emotions walk with you.
Remember that when you walk, the point isn’t to manufacture positive sensations or emotions, but rather, to be in touch with whichever ones are naturally living in your body at this moment. This will help you stay grounded, better understand yourself, and have a better relationship with your body and mind.
Now, I wish you a mindful rest of your walk and many more wonderful walks to come.