Walking, by itself, is a wonderful, deceptively simple exercise, whose benefits range from elevating good cholesterol to improving mood and mental performance. The goal of spirited walking is to maximize these benefits. Your walking pace should pump up your heart rate; you’ll come to recognize your aerobic workout level by the whining in your head: This is hard. I don’t feel like doing this anymore. What time is it, anyway?
Of course, any exercise has value. Working in the yard brings benefits. So does taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking to the bank on your lunch hour. But the kind of walking that builds cardiovascular strength and mental control asks for a commitment of walking regularly and walking fast enough that your breathing becomes slightly heavy. That’s when you’ll encounter the challenges that give your mind a workout, too.
Also, spirited walking calls for other changes in your approach to walking:
Make a Move. Spirited walking begins with the simple act of walking and with the recognition that walking has many parallels to life. Walkers move forward, take steps, go toward something. Walking is changing position, getting from one place to another. Whether you start by walking around your house to water your plants or trekking across the country, the action offers a fresh point of view.
Take a Chance. Spirited walking is walking that pushes you out of your comfort zone, past well-known patterns and paths. It feeds on curiosity and challenge. Try a new route or a different schedule, join a walking group. The newness heightens your senses. You walk a trail toward self-awareness that takes exercise beyond heart rates and calorie burning.
Get an Attitude. Spirited walking is walking with awareness. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself when you exercise. The words you use reflect an attitude that is more important than where you walk, when you walk, and how far you travel. Each step brings an opportunity to confront the mental chatter that holds you back. Each step offers a chance to connect with yourself and your surroundings. I can do it, I can do it, Yes-I-can, you chant to drown out voices that nag you to slow down.
Go for More. Spirited walking is walking that reflects a willingness to seek more from exercise. Try something different. Speed up your walking pace slightly. Extend your route a bit. Ask more than usual of yourself. When you do, you set off on an exploration that also opens doors to other parts of your life.
How to Talk
Next comes how you talk to yourself as you walk. Unless you’ve discovered an easy way to leave your brain on the doorstep as you step out of the house, you’re probably going to confront mental obstacles at every corner. Rather than fighting the words that distract or discourage, successful athletes and experienced meditators learn to replace them with words that keep the mind in the present moment.
Meditators often use a word, a phrase, or a sound, called a mantra, to quiet and focus the mind. In Sanskrit, mantra indicates a word or sacred hymn that is intoned as an incantation. In many meditation techniques, students repeat a mantra as a way of blocking out distracting thoughts and giving full attention to a spiritual thought. With practice, meditation teaches you to control your focus and free yourself from the automatic cycles of “shoulds” that bombard you all day long.
For walkers, a mantra can be any word that provides mental focus. Simply repeating yes, yes, yes in rhythm With each step or each exhalation of breath can be a
powerful mantra when you are feeling resistant or bogged down. Right here, right now, has a similar power to keep your thoughts in the present. When you catch yourself buying a birthday gift or getting the car serviced while you’re walking, the affirmation I am here and I am walking gives you a gentle reminder to return to the present.
There is no rule about how to integrate mantras into your workouts. Try this: After five or 10 minutes of easy walking to warm up, pick up your pace. Keep your body erect, head up, and eyes slightly down, focused on the path ahead. Mentally, begin repeating a mantra. (For some ideas on what to say.) When your attention drifts, simply return to the phrase. Continue for 10 or 15 minutes.
When walkers adopt these meditation techniques, they trigger physical and mental reactions that reverberate on many more levels than they realize. By blocking out distracting worries or stresses, they experience a walk that provides a psychological break from the pressures of a demanding daily life. And these benefits continue long after the walk has ended.
By repeating a word, phrase, prayer, sound, or physical movement, we elicit what cardiologist Herbert Benson called “the relaxation response.” Benson, president of the Mind-Body Medical Institute of Harvard Medical School and author of several books on mind/body medicine, identified the response in tests with students of transcendental meditation. His studies confirmed that meditative practices produced short-term calming effects and long-term health benefits. Benson found that meditators could achieve a relaxed state simply by repeating one, one, one with each breath, but he later concluded that people who select words with spiritual or personal significance are more likely to stick with the repetition and find enhanced value and satisfaction from the meditation.
As meditative practices keep you in the present, so do affirmations. Affirmations state a goal, a way you want to feel or be, offered in the present tense. Often they begin with I am. I am strong and powerful. I am prepared and relaxed. I am happy and confident. Think of affirmations as a kind of in-house advertising program. The more you hear the message, the more you believe it. After a while it becomes part of your life. You’ll wonder how you got along without it.
When affirmations don’t work, it may be that you’ve been wishy-washy about stating your goal. Be realistic, but also be bold. State the affirmation in language that is positive and charged with feeling. Then be willing to do the work of repetition that gives the affirmation power.
Henry Ford is credited with a terse summary of the impact of self-talk: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” The statement sounds like a contradiction, but it identifies an important truth: How you think and talk to yourself often determines what you achieve. When you integrate affirmations into your walking program, the repetition of your steps internalizes your words and reaffirms them. Affirmations give life to your imagination.
RELATED ARTICLE: The Basics of Spirited Walking
REGARDLESS OF YOUR starting speed or fitness level, the route to inner and outer movement can begin on a walking path. A spirited walk can become the first step of a spiritual journey.
HOW FAR? Let fitness be your guide. make it your goal to walk for at least 30 minutes–five to six minutes of warm-up and cool-down on each end and 20 minutes of aerobic effort in the middle. Another 10 minutes of gentle stretching when you finish brings flexibility to your workout and becomes increasingly important as your walks gain intensity.
HOW FAST? An average starting pace for healthy walkers falls between 2.5 and 3.5 miles per hour–a mile in 24 to 17 minutes. Brisk walking is commonly defined as 3.5 to 4 miles per hour. But the key to spirited walking is not so much how fast you move as how fast your heart beats. Set a pace that increases your heart rate and your breathing. Add a vigorous arm swing to increase the aerobic benefits.
HOW OFTEN? Three days a week, minimum. Add days if you want and if you’re physically ready. Check with your doctor or a knowledgeable athletic trainer if you have questions about how much waling to attempt. Stay with it and you’ll get hooked on the mental and physical boost that comes from active walking meditation.
If you’ve struggled with a regular exercise program in the past, start cautiously in committing yourself to a walking schedule. Consider walking once a week with a regular walking group. Supplement the group walk by walking alone or with a partner two more days each week. Select a location and a time of day, and then stick to it all week. The fewer decisions you have to make before you put on your walking shoes, the better.
If you walk with a partner, select companions who want to share the path in silence. Support one another by setting distance targets and agreeing not to talk during those segments of your walks.