On most days, after I’ve done my morning meditation and after I’ve ushered my son off to school, I strap on my Vibrams and head out the door for my morning walk. Most days, I’ll tread around my neighborhood, through one of the many subdivisions that make up this section of suburban San Antonio. Over the months I’ve been doing this walking practice, I’ve discovered a number of different routes I can take, depending on my mood and how long I want to be out walking.
So I start the stopwatch app on my iPhone, and off I go.
I don’t wear headphones while walking; I don’t listen to music or an audiobook or a podcast. I could, certainly, and I don’t see that there’s anything particular wrong with that practice. However, for me, I find I want to listen to my surroundings, to hear the sounds of the waking world.
For me, walking practice is either an extension of or alternative to my meditation practice. The rhythmic padding of my feet on the pavement or gravel or grass is soothing, and as my body does its thing, my mind is free to do its own thing, too.
This Is Your Brain on Walking. Any Questions?
Depending on the day, my mind might do a variety of things while I’m walking. I might focus on what I’m doing in the moment: focus on the rhythm of my breathing, on the feel of the ground under my feet (the Vibrams help with this), on the cars and people and animals moving around me. I might focus on a particular issue I’m trying to think through (drafting my next blog post, reviewing my schedule for the week, planning for an upcoming event, figuring out how best to pay the bills, or deciding what to do on my next “play” day). Or I might just let my mind wander, loose and free, the same way my walking sometimes goes, wandering through the city, finding new paths.
Most often, I’d say—unless I have a particularly thorny problem I’m trying to think through—my mind is just loose and free and open, and it observes the world with a softness, a roundness, a lightness of attention that’s often in stark contrast to the sharp focus we pay to so many things in our lives. It reminds me of those optical illusion posters: the ones where you have to unfocus your vision, soften it, and then the image of the horse or the dolphin or the dinosaur will pop out at you.
The same is true when I’m walking in that state: things just pop out at me. I might see a squirrel, acorn in mouth, jumping from one tree limb to another. I might notice something new about a house I’ve passed by hundreds of times—not a change even, but something I just hadn’t noticed before. I might become aware of the shift in the wind and the smell of rain on the air that lets me know I’d better hoof it faster or I’m going to get wet. (And sometimes, I just wait for the rain to fall and walk in it anyway—a blessing when San Antonio summer mornings have temperatures already in the upper 80s.)
Or this week, as I watch the Halloween decorations go up on the houses around the neighborhoods, and marvel at the creativity and time folks invest to decorate their homes. (We are not a Halloween household—it’s my wife’s least favorite holiday. Yes, we hand out goodies to the trick-or-treaters, but we don’t really decorate…)
Benefits of a Walking Practice
My walking practice supports three key things for me:
1. Physical health. Walking is good exercise, particularly when it’s done for a decent length of time (I typically do 30-60 minutes), and at a good clip. I usually break out in a sweat at some point on the walk, and by the time I’m done, my muscles are warm and loose, my skin is flushed, and I feel good.
You, like me, have undoubtedly heard about the health benefits of walking, and the whole 10,000 steps concept. One of the best places I’ve found for good information on the subject of walking and its health benefits is Mark’s Daily Apple, by Mark Sisson. Mark has written many articles about walking over the years. here are a few recent favorites: The Definitive Guide to Walking and Walking: The Human Condition and 17 Reasons to Walk More This Year. Check them out!
I’ve certainly seen the benefits in my own health over the months I’ve been doing it, including an improved resting heart rate, more energy throughout the day, and even a bit of weight loss (about 10 pounds).
The other great thing about walking is its simplicity. It can be done by just about anyone, at any fitness level. It can be done just about anywhere. And it requires no special gear, other than a good pair of shoes and the proper clothing for the weather.
2. Mental health. As I mentioned above, my walking practice is a great way to clear my head, or to focus my mind on a problem, or to unfocus my mind to let my subconscious work.
The other part of my brain that benefits from walking practice is flexibility. I generally don’t walk the same path two days in a row. I have a variety of routes that I walk regularly, but I mix them up. And I’ll often throw a new one in here and there. Like this morning: I took a right turn down a street I’ve passed many times, and found myself in a new stretch of neighborhood I hadn’t walked in before. (A neighborhood where all the “front” doors were on the sides of the houses… first time I’ve ever seen that!)
Sometimes, I even get in my car and go someplace else entirely, and walk in a park or downtown or someplace else I haven’t been. And pretty soon, I’ll be adding some hikes to my walking regimen. There’s some fun places around here to explore!
3. Connections. And lastly, my walking practice reinforces my connections, both to the natural world, and to my community.
Jonathan Fields, in his recent interview on Good Life Project TV, talked about his own walking practice [44:45]: how he’s in Manhattan, two blocks from Central Park and two blocks from the Hudson River (how cool is that?!) and that he’s taken to walking in the morning (after his morning meditation… see a pattern forming?) as a way to start his day off on the right foot. (Pun intended…) He says that “Nature is a big reset for me,” and the walking each day provides him that connection to nature and sunlight and movement.
I heartily agree. Connecting to nature each day is a great grounding for me as well. Although I most often walk the suburban neighborhoods near my home, sometimes I take my walk to Comanche Lookout Park, or Brackenridge Park, and enjoy a broader slice of nature. But even in my neighborhood I get to enjoy the rustle of the leaves, the smell of flowers or cut grass, the flight of the barn swallows who nest under the eaves of the local convenience store. These things bring a peace and a sense of connection to the broader world that centers and de-stresses me.
Walking also connects me to my community. I wave and say “Good Morning!” to fellow walkers and runners, or to folks working in their yards, or to folks heading off to work (at least the ones who go in late). I also observe the happenings in the neighborhood: whose house went up for sale, which new neighbor moved in, or who had a baby (this one tipped off by the giant stork figure standing in the yard, announcing the particulars of the new baby… and smartly, another sign proclaiming the name of the proud big sister…)
And walking gives me opportunities to be neighborly, as my grandfather taught me: I notice when someone’s trash receptacle has fallen over in the street (and I right it and pull it into their driveway), or when someone has inadvertently left their car door open (and so I trot up and close it), or if someone needs a hand changing a flat tire.
[Serendipity Note: I discovered, not long after posting this today, that Mark Sisson also published a post (for him, another post) on walking today: Why These Nine Famous Thinkers Walked So Much. Mark’s post takes thinkers and creatives from Aristotle to Dickens to Thoreau, and details what their daily walking practice meant to them. Very cool!]
Your Walking Practice
As with the meditation practice last week, this week I’m encouraging you to adopt some sort of movement practice into your daily routine. It doesn’t have to be walking, if running or yoga or kickboxing or Zumba is more your speed. Or bicycling, or hiking, or swimming. There are tons of options for building a healthy habit of moving your body on a daily basis. Walking, though, is a good choice because it’s accessible to most people, and can be done without any special equipment.
If you’re thinking about starting a walking practice, here are a few suggestions:
- Find a good pair of shoes that are comfortable for you. I love my Vibram FiveFingers, but they aren’t for everybody.
- Map out a few good routes, so you know the distance and the approximate time each route will take.
- Start small, with a short, 10- or 15-minute walk, and gradually work yourself up to 30 minutes or more.
- For longer walks, make sure you hydrate yourself well before the walk, or take some water with you.
Whatever you choose, walking or some other movement practice, be sure to stick with it for several weeks. That’ll give you a chance to develop your chosen activity into a daily habit.
And have fun with it! Take off tomorrow morning and start exploring the world right outside your front door!
And check out Part 4 of the series, I Am a Writer, and I Practice Like One.
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