From Biosis 3, March 2005
Walking: A Holistic Workout
Hippocrates once called walking our “best medicine.” Certainly, as exercise, it helps us strengthen our circulation and immune system. It helps us better assimilate nutrients from our diet. It spurs the creation of new blood vessels in the brain, which helps it get more oxygen and food. Some research has even shown that exercise creates new neurons in the brain, further enhancing our mental abilities and potential!
But these are things most any form of exercise can do. What makes walking so special? More than 2000 years after Hippocrates, the great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau went so far as to say that those who don’t walk are already as good as dead. But he also suggested why walking is so beneficial: it’s more than just a physical endeavor but a mental and spiritual one, too.
The need for mental and spiritual renewal is perhaps even more pressing today. We all know how our environment contributes to stress. Daily, we face rivaling obligations and responsibilities at work and home. We are bombarded with information from all sides, perpetually connected by cell phones, PDAs, computers and all sorts of other technological wonders. Our lives buzz with both literal, external noise and, too often, the internal white noise of anxiety.
Living in such a world, it is vital that we make time not only to take care of ourselves but to pay attention to ourselves and our relationships to the world around us and beyond us. No one can ever be at their best physically if mental and spiritual needs remain unmet. A deficit in one aspect can eventually lead to deficits in all three: body, mind and spirit.
You can certainly meet some of these needs by walking with others. Shared exercise time can be a great way to strengthen the bonds we share with our partners, spouses, children and friends. It’s a chance for us to talk about things that really matter to us, to share the news of our lives and tend to each other’s needs for attention – or just enjoy idle talk, good laughs and the company of others. These things are important, strengthening our hearts and minds, as well.
But it’s also important to spend time alone, to be present to yourself, your thoughts and feelings. When we walk alone, we give ourselves the chance to get to know ourselves better. We can stretch our imaginations in ways that make us more aware of ourselves, our values and our place in the world – or just enhance our ability to think actively and creatively.
For our minds and souls need exercise just as much as our bodies do. Research shows that the less active, engaged, purposeful thinking we do, the greater our risk of age-related dementia and a lower quality of life as we age. Similarly, those who live spiritually-engaged lives register more positively on most major measures of health and wellness.
Here, then, are a few mental and spiritual “exercises” you can try while walking alone:
Use Your Senses
We tend to privilege sight above all other senses. While walking, dedicate yourself to sensing everything. Focus your perception in different directions. Feel the warmth of the sun on your skin or the fingers of breeze running through your hair. Breathe deeply and recognize all of the scents around you: freshly mowed lawn, blossoming trees, the aroma of a meal wafting out of a house. Pay attention to sound: birds chattering, a dog barking in the distance, the throatiness of a souped up engine. Once you get used to paying attention in this focused way, one sense at a time, try being aware of all the sensory input simultaneously. It can be hard at first, but the moments in which you can do it can be wild and wonderful with such presence of mind.
Think of your walk as a treasure hunt. Before you start, decide that you will notice a specific number of unique things on your walk. What those unique things are, only you will know – and even then, maybe only when you see them. Look for things you haven’t truly noticed before. Perhaps it’s the garden in front of a house you often drive past but never really see. Maybe it’s a pair of jays squabbling in a funny way over a seed pod. It could be some odd artifact dumped by the wayside or lost. It could even be just the color of light pouring through the sky – a tone that seems just a little bit different than usual. Or it could be someone doing something – a man seated on the edge of a curb, putting on his shoes; or a child tap-dancing on an oily piece of cardboard in her family’s driveway. Try making up stories about what you see, or just try to find the words to describe it. Perhaps when you get home, you could write down some of these things, keeping a journal of your walking.
Walking is a great time to work through current problems or concerns. You can think about the issue from different perspectives, work through the pros and cons. Imagine the outcomes that might occur with each different choice you could make regarding the problem. Think about the ways in which some of your choices could be combined into new choices. By the end of the walk, you might even find that what seemed a thorny problem is not really thorny at all – that the new perspective you gained while walking and mulling reveals that the problem is not in the situation itself but in how you have been responding to it. Or it may no longer seem thorny simply because you have found a good solution.
Prayer and Meditation
There are as many forms of prayer and meditation as there are people in the world. Each of us must choose the way of speaking to or thinking on the divine that is most right for us. Some may just reflect on the miracles of creation that are all around us, the reflection being a form of thanksgiving. Others choose more active forms of discourse with the divine, while yet others may choose a piece of holy text, spiritual teaching or tenet of faith to ponder. On the other hand, some choose meditation through emptying the mind, paring away all the non-essentials until one is simply in the process of being. Indeed, walking is most conducive to this, as the very movement can be rather hypnotic; we can lose ourselves in the rhythms of our walking and breathing.
There’s yet one more physical factor in walking that lets it be a holistic workout: the endorphin party that happens during physical exertion. Endorphinsare neuropeptides produced in the brain, Structurally similar to morphine, they serve as natural painkillers and enhance our sense of well being. It’s no surprise then that they make us feel good. And when we feel good, we tend to produce better thinking. And so, as always, the physical, mental and spiritual mutually reinforce each other. And each step we take becomes a step towards ever more enhanced wellness.