When you are feeling blue, do you ever take a stroll to walk it off? If you do, you may be just a few proverbial steps away from practicing something called walking meditation. Not only does this walking technique have the power to beat depression that is deep enough to send you to a psychiatrist, it is actually more heart-healthy, more stress-busting and a lot less strenuous than traditional aerobic fitness walking. No special equipment or exercise clothing is required either. Just put on a pair of comfortable shoes, and let’s go…
BETTER THAN POWER WALKING
First, take a tip from a study from Thailand in which walking meditation, which was given a slightly aerobic twist, provided more cardiovascular and psychological benefit than regular aerobic power walking. Before you go for a walk, warm up (and cool down after your walk) with a few basic stretching exercises. Then…
- Stand tall with your arms at your sides.
- Let your gaze be softly directed at the ground six feet in front of you, and begin to walk. Walk slowly…as if you’re stopping to smell the roses. And really let yourself do that. Forget about the cares of the day. In fact, focus instead on the sole of each foot as it makes contact with the ground.
- While you slowly walk, let your arms gently swing in unison forward and back—yes, that means both arms forward at the same time and both arms back at the same time, which is different from the way we normally walk but not difficult to do…and as you walk this way, repeatedly say or think, in rhythm with your movements, a word or short phrase that is personal and inspiring to you.
In the Thai study, participants repeated a term that, as Thais, was meaningful to them—“Budd” with each upward swing of the arms and “Dha” (Buddha) with each downward swing. For you, if you happen to be a spiritual type, you might want to choose a word or term from your own tradition. If not, choose any word or phrase that is uplifting for you, such as “Peace and serenity,” “Easy breezy,” “It’s all good,” “Sunshine and rainbows”—even the name of a pet or someone dear who gives you joy.
- If your mind wanders to worries and concerns, that’s OK. Catch yourself at it…take a relaxing breath…and return to focusing on your walk and your inspiring phrase.
- Walk this way for 20 minutes at a time when you first begin, and aim to lengthen the time up to a maximum of an hour.
In the Thai study, a group of women between the ages of 60 and 90 who had mild-to-moderate depression were taught this walking technique to see whether it could benefit older women in general who had gotten into an emotionally down and sedentary lifestyle. The study recruited 45 women who all received full physical examinations and then were divided into three groups. One group received no supervised walking activity. Another group learned and practiced traditional aerobic fitness walking, which involved brisk walking and arm swinging that was intensified as the study progressed. (That’s the sort of energetic, chin-up, no-guts-no-glory exercise walking that many of us do in America.) The third group learned and practiced the walking meditation described above, and this was intensified as the study progressed not by having participants quicken their pace, but by having them hold weights in the form of filled water bottles.
Both walking groups practiced their walking regimens three times a week for 12 weeks. Participants in both of the walking groups also did the same warm-up and cool-down stretching exercises before and after each walking session. Walks were 20-minutes long for the first six weeks and increased to 30 minutes for the last six weeks.
At the end of the program, the participants received physical exams again. No major change except for an increase in weight was seen in the group that did not receive any type of walking exercise. Improvement in fitness and overall health were seen in both of the walking groups, but—here’s the exciting part—there were some really fantastic benefits seen in the walking meditation group…
- Weight loss. While both groups lost about 3% of body mass, members of the walking meditation group had a 5% decrease in body fat, while the fitness walkers did not lose any.
- Blood and cardiovascular health. The degree of ease of blood flow improved by 72% in the fitness walking group—that’s very good—and by 88% in the walking meditation group—that’s great. Blood pressure, total cholesterol, “good” (HDL) cholesterol, triglyceride levels and a blood measure of inflammation called C-reactive protein improved equally in both walking groups, but significant reductions in the “stress hormone” cortisol, “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and interleukin 6, a protein associated with inflammation, were seen only in the walking meditation group.
- Fitness. Both walking groups improved in all measures of fitness—muscle strength, flexibility and agility. But members of the walking meditation group were able to walk 17 meters (about 56 feet) farther than the fitness walking group in a timed test given at the end of the study. Compared with prestudy timed walking scores, the fitness walking group improved by 29%…while the walking meditation group improved by 84%. Amazing!
- Happiness. A significant drop in depression scores, based on psychological testing, was seen only in the meditation walking group, with the average score dropping below that signifying a depression diagnosis. In comparison, the participants in the fitness walking group had very mild reductions in depression test scores and those not doing any walking exercise at all had a slight increase in their depression scores.
So, if you need to lighten and brighten your day and want to stay fit without breaking a sweat, here’s a kind of light and relaxing walk you can take with a happy song in your heart.