If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.

African proverb

Three times I’ve joined a gym and then abandoned the membership after a couple of months. Some people thrive on scheduled classes and delight in watching the TVs blaring in the aerobics room.  I prefer exercise videos or DVD’s I can watch at home. I can pick my time, I don’t have to drive anywhere, and I don’t have to wear Lycra tights.

I’ve also been rediscovering walking as a form of exercise. Walking transports me from my indoor work environment and reacquaints me with the wider world. Walking requires no special training and minimal equipment (mainly good shoes, which we will discuss later). Walking draws a long list of accolades, including:

  • Stabilizing blood sugar for up to four hours
  • Reducing blood pressure
  • Increasing aerobic capacity
  • Increasing bone mineral density
  • Reducing stress
  • Improving sleep

Research suggests that as little as 20 minutes of walking three times a week will maintain aerobic fitness. In order to improve your aerobic capacity, you need to walk farther and more frequently.

Walking and all forms of rhythmic exercise have another less frequently cited benefit: moving the mind into a relaxed, meditative state. Many spiritual traditions have capitalized on the combined physical and mental benefits of walking and incorporated walking into their contemplative practices. While living and traveling in Europe, I visited many monasteries and nunneries and was struck by how many of the central courtyards were deeply grooved with walking paths. For centuries, the monks and nuns had circumambulated the courtyard, synchronizing their prayers or bible verses with the rhythm of their feet. This meditative form of walking has been lost to most of us in the West. Thankfully the practice is still alive in other traditions, offering us the opportunity to reclaim it as our own.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, offers the following inspiration for walking meditation in Being Peace:

Walking meditation can be very enjoyable. We walk slowly, alone or with friends, if possible in some beautiful place. Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking. Walking not in order to arrive, just for walking. The purpose is to be in the present moment and enjoy each step you make. Therefore you have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past, just enjoying the present moment. You can take the hand of a child as you do it. You walk, you make steps as if you are the happiest person on Earth.

We walk all the time, but usually it is more like running. When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on Earth. Every one of us can do that provided that we want it very much. Any child can do that. If we can take one step like that, we can take two, three, four, and five. When we are able to take one step peacefully, happily, we are for the cause of peace and happiness for the whole of humankind. Walking meditation is a wonderful practice.

Hahn also writes about counting the footfalls that correspond with your breathing, e.g. repeating silently “In, in, in,” for three steps as you breathe in, and “Out, out, out,” for three steps as you breathe out. You can vary the number of steps per breath according to your natural rhythm, and the terrain (e.g. fewer counts per breath on an uphill climb).

The next time you are out for a walk, or working out on an exercise machine, become aware of the rhythm of your movements and your breath. Allow the rhythmic movements to quiet your mind. Think of a prayer or inspirational verse that is important to you. An uplifting phrase will carry you longer than a mindless sentence like “My car is red; my car is red.” Sense a rhythm in the prayer or verse and begin to pace your footfalls (or other movements) with that rhythm.

I am also discovering that subtle changes in my walking gate can alter joint and muscle stress. Danny and Katherine Dreyer, authors of Chi Walking: The Five Mindful Steps for Lifelong Health and Energy, offer detailed instructions with accompanying photographs on posture, balance, movement, and focus. Their straightforward guidelines help reduce muscle and joint strain while maximizing benefit to the spine.

One example of a small change in gate that has made a tremendous difference in the way I walk is how I lift my foot off the ground as I walk. Dreyer offers the following instruction in Chi Walking. Please stand up and actually do this exercise; reading the words alone can’t convey the body sense: 

The Standing Heel Lift

  • First, feel the difference between picking up your heels and pushing off with your toes. Start by pushing your foot off the ground with your toes. You should be able to feel all the muscles in your toes, ankles, and calves working to push your foot up.
  • Now, with your ankle and lower leg relaxed, lift your heel up off the ground and imagine that you’re peeling your foot off the ground as if it were a postage stamp you’re peeling off a roll. You shouldn’t feel any pressure under your toes or feet as you lift. Your ankle should be so relaxed that your toes drop down as you pick up your heel. Can you feel the difference?

As you begin a walking program, consider the following guidelines:

  • Always begin with less than you think you can do. If you are sure you can walk for 15 minutes, walk for 12 minutes. As one wise martial arts master used to tell his students, “Never give 100%. If you give all you have, you will have nothing left in reserve.”
  • Wear supportive, well-fitted shoes. The next time you are in a large city, look for a technical shoe store. These specialty shoe stores look at the wear patterns on your old shoes, watch you walk or run, and then fit you with shoes that are designed for your particular strike pattern (the way your foot lands on the pavement).
  • If you are walking daily, have at least two pairs of shoes to rotate. The shoe soles and inner cushion can take up to 48 hours to recover after being compressed during a walk. If you walk again too soon in the same shoe, you have less cushion in the shoe, making you more prone to injuries such as shin splints.
  • For those with knee or other joint problems, consider water walking. You can buy special slipper-like shoes with rubberized traction on the bottom to wear in the pool. Most pools now reserve one or two lanes for water walking. Moving against the resistance of the water increases strength-building for the leg and back muscles, and the water’s buoyancy minimizes joint strain.
  • If your walking program is interrupted by illness or other circumstances, remember that you lose aerobic conditioning within a week. When you resume walking, start at the beginning and gradually increase your walking time.

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