Walking is not only good for your body, it has a spiritual component as well. In many religious traditions, walking is considered a spiritual practice—a form of meditation in action. Mindful walking is different from taking a hike or a chatty, neighborhood stroll. To practice mindful walking means to move without a goal or intention. Rather than being motivated to accumulate steps, you pour your awareness into each step, becoming present as breath and footsteps coincide.
Mindful walking can be practiced anywhere, in a mall, or in a city, but best of all is in nature. An emerging body of research has found being in nature, particularly walking in nature, can have a rejuvenating effect on the brain, helping to free up your mind when you feel stuck, elevating your mood and boosting levels of attention. Traditions such as Zen believe walking can form a bridge between meditation and everyday life. Philosopher Henry David Thoreau in his book “A Writer’s Journal” wrote that walking offers the gift of insight. It allows us, “to be able to see ourselves, not merely as others see us, but as we are,” Thoreau wrote.
A key advantage of mindful walking, as opposed to other forms of meditation, is its accessibility. It’s often easier for those with active minds to walk it out, rather than squirm restlessly on a meditation cushion. Plus, when it comes to easy ways to stay active, you can’t beat taking a walk. For most people, it’s safe, sustainable and low- or no-cost. It doesn’t require any special skills or equipment. What’s revelatory, for such a modest activity, is the surprising number of benefits it brings. Here are five perks of mindful walking.
5 Benefits of Mindful Walking
1. You’ll sleep better
A recent study published in the journal Sleep Health, found that when healthy adults—individuals without any symptoms of a clinical sleep problem—were more active and walked more, they slept better at night.
2. You’ll have increased energy
You’ve heard of runner’s high, but walker’s high is also a real thing. Like running, walking—the brisker the better—promotes an increase in endorphin levels. When we are doing something that requires a burst of energy, endorphins, our body’s natural hormones get released. It’s this release that triggers the feeling of euphoria. A 2016 study published in Emotion found that after just 12 minutes of walking, participants felt an increase in vigor, attentiveness and well-being versus the same time spent sitting.
3. It will improve mental and emotional well-being
Endorphins not only make us feel better, they help us think better. According to a 2017 study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, a walking regime of three, one-hour walking classes per week for six months improved cognitive function among older adults with vascular cognitive impairment. The walking improved participants’ reaction times as well executive function. Walking keeps the brain healthy: Like any organ, it requires good blood flow to deliver the necessary nutrients and oxygen to its tissues. Walking decreases inflammation and insulin resistance and promotes cell growth, two factors that have a large impact on brain health.
In a similar vein, walking helps alleviate depression. According to a review published in 2013 in the journal Neuropsychobiology, exercise is linked to the release of neurotransmitters and proteins called neurotrophic factors, which cause nerves to make new connections. These new connections, also known as cell growth, may reduce depressive symptoms.
4. It prevents weight gain
Not only does walking burn calories, but it can also curb a sweet tooth. A 2011 study from the University of Exeter found that a 15-minute walk can cut chocolate cravings in half and even reduce the amount of chocolate you eat in stressful situations. A more recent 2015 study, published in PLoS One, expanded on previous studies to suggest that brisk walking may reduce the craving for all kinds of sugary snacks in overweight people.
5. It encourages creativity
Walking keeps your body fit but leaves your mind free to ramble, generating the perfect conditions for creative output. A 2014 Stanford University study found that walking increased creative or “divergent” thinking by an average of 60 percent. In the study, creativity was defined as the ability to come up with many different possible solutions to a problem. According to the study, “walking opens up the free flow of ideas,” and offers a simple, effective way to stimulate new ideas.
Tips for how to do walking meditation:
Find a location.
A peaceful spot where you won’t be disturbed works best.
Break down each step into its component parts
Walking meditation involves placing deliberate attention on a series of actions that feel automatic. While it may feel awkward, even ridiculous, to break down each micromovement, it’s essential to notice these four basic components of each step, courtesy of Berkeley University’s Greater Good Science Center:
- a) the lifting of one foot;
b) the moving of the foot a bit forward of where you’re standing;
c) the placing of the foot on the floor, heal first;
d) the shifting of the weight of the body onto the forward leg as the back heel lifts, while the toes of that foot remain touching the floor or the ground.
Find the right speed
Walking meditation is not about covering a lot of ground. The emphasis is on moving slowly with awareness.
Hands and arms
Whatever feels most comfortable and natural for your hands and arms is the best technique. You can try clasping your hands behind your back or in front of you, or simply let them hang at your side.
Focusing your attention
The Greater Good Science Center recommends that as you walk, you try to focus your attention on one or more of these sensations: “Your breath coming in and out of your body; the movement of your feet and legs, or their contact with the ground or floor; your head balanced on your neck and shoulders; sounds nearby or those caused by the movement of your body; or whatever your eyes take in as they focus on the world in front of you.” When your mind wanders, as it inevitably will, just bring it back to the immediacy of the moment.