Guide to mindful walking
If you’re a regular walker at your neighbourhood park or track, you probably know that brisk strolls are a great way to work your muscles and heart. Could walking present an opportunity to flex your mind, too? Research suggests that adding meditation or mindfulness to walks could support wellbeing in ways that might surprise you. Keep reading to learn more about this unique form of movement and learn step-by-step instructions for two mindful walking exercises you can try next time you lace up your sneakers.
What is mindful walking?
Think of mindful walking as a workout for training your attentional focus, says Amishi Jha, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. Using your body’s motions as a grounding tool, the practice guides your mind toward being present in the moment—instead of, say, stress-spiraling on work deadlines. And note that while some people use the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” interchangeably, Dr. Jha and many other experts draw a distinction between two. Here’s how she applies it to walking:
- Walking meditation guides focus to the self. “It’s a concentrative practice where you’re focused on very specific sensations and taking an observational stance,” Dr. Jha says.
- Mindful walking is a bit broader and more receptive than meditation. “You’re allowing thoughts, feelings, and sensations to kind of just come in and pass through,” she explains.
We’ll cover both approaches in more detail below. For now, just know that neither style is better than the other. Says Dr. Jha, “They are two distinct ways to train your brain, and both [can] benefit your wellbeing.”
Health benefits of mindful walking and walking meditation
While studies specifically focused on mindful walking and walking meditation have been mostly small so far, they do add to a larger body of evidence suggesting that meditative practices in general can support wellbeing. Early findings on walking-based approaches point to potential health benefits in several areas.
In a small two-week study of young adults, volunteers who took breaks for mindful movement during the day reported feeling less stressed and anxious than volunteers who simply rested or walked. A monthlong follow-up study of 29 older adults conducted by the same research team uncovered a similar correlation—and also found that many volunteers enjoyed mindful walking so much that they continued with the practice after the study ended.
It’s possible that focusing on leg movements during mindful walking could support better balance as we age, according to a preliminary study in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies. Researchers evaluated 29 women in their 60s and 70s who completed 30-minute mindfulness walks 3 days a week. After 8 weeks, the volunteers had better balance scores compared with baseline measurements, while a non-walking control group saw balance scores decline. Further research would be needed to confirm whether walking plus mindfulness offers an edge over walking or mindfulness alone.
While walking of any sort can be beneficial for people living with type 2 diabetes, adding meditation to the mix may impart additional benefits, a small 2016 study found. The investigation compared two walking programs: a program with no meditation, and a program that included guided meditation in the form of a Buddhist-style mantra. After 12 weeks, both walking groups saw improvements in cardiovascular fitness and blood sugar readings. But only the meditation group saw improvements in markers of long-term blood-sugar control, arterial stiffness, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Sense of difficulty
If you’re dreading the exertion of a brisk walk, incorporating mindfulness might dial up your enjoyment factor. Treadmill walkers in a small 2018 study who listened to a guided mindfulness recording while striding at a moderate-intensity pace reported having a more pleasurable experience—and lower ratings of perceived exertion—than volunteers who simply huffed and puffed through their paces.
How to practice mindful walking
As mentioned earlier, we’ll actually be outlining two exercises for you to try here: a traditional walking meditation and a mindful walking exercise. There are no strict rules on how often or how much to meditate, Dr. Jha says. She recommends 10 minutes, three times a week as a starting point.
If you like, try tacking those minutes of mindfulness to the beginning or end of a regular walk, says meditation and yoga instructor Jillian Pransky, author of Deep Listening: A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart. Here’s how to do the exercises:
Walking meditation exercise
With this exercise, the goal isn’t to cover great distances. In fact, you might opt to do this one right inside your home! Basic walking meditation requires just a small back-and-forth pacing area—or runway, as Dr. Jha calls it—which helps train focus by limiting the need for decision making.
- Choose a runway that’s 10 to 15 paces long and located in a quiet setting—indoors or out. A long hallway is great, as is a backyard path.
- Stand at your starting point and take a deep breath or two. Conduct a brief mental scan of your body and choose an area to focus on, such as your feet, knees, or arms.
- Begin walking, pacing your steps slowly as you direct your focus to your body’s movements. Observe your sensations as you step along the runway. For instance, you might notice your toes stretching as each foot rolls off the floor. You might observe the gentle thud of your heel making contact with each step.
- As you walk, other thoughts may enter your mind. Try to acknowledge them without reacting or problem-solving. For example, instead of thinking, “Argh, how am I going to finish my budget proposal by Friday?” try, “I am facing a lot of pressure at work this week.” Then return to focusing on your steps.
- Once you reach the end of your runway, pause, turn, and—keeping your mental focus on your movements—walk back to the starting point. Continue for 10 minutes or however long you wish.
Try to be patient with yourself if this exercise takes a bit of practice. “Just like doing reps with weights, you are literally training your brain to stay on task when you walk this way,” Dr. Jha says.
Mindful walking exercise
The focus of this outdoor walk—developed by Pranksy for mindfulness retreats she leads—expands to include your posture, breath, and environment.
- Choose an outdoor walking location with minimal noise and few safety distractions. Good options include a local hiking trail or a quiet neighbourhood with wide sidewalks.
- Before you begin, stand tall and notice the feeling of your feet on the ground. Take three deep breaths and release the tension in your shoulders by allowing them to drop.
- Begin walking at a steady pace that allows you to observe your movements in the context of your surroundings. You want to “be aware of your feet making a connection with the ground, feel your breath moving in your body, and observe what is happening in your environment,” Pranksy says.
- As you stride, continue to focus on the rhythms of your body and allow your senses to take in your surroundings. You don't need to focus on anything special; a spirit of neutral awareness is the objective. Take note of the trees and flowers. Smell the freshness in the air. Listen to the songbirds. You’re simply noticing.
- If other thoughts pop into your mind, acknowledge them and gently redirect your attention by focusing on just your breath for a few paces. “Count to four as you inhale, then count to four as you exhale,” Pransky says. “Or, add a mantra. For example, silently repeat the words ‘I am’ as you inhale and then the word ‘calm’ as you exhale.” Then, expand your focus to include your surroundings again. Continue for 10 minutes or as long as desired.
The upshot: Can mindful walking make you healthier?
If you enjoy walking, and you’re looking to achieve greater calm and potentially support your wellness journey in other ways, adding mindfulness or meditation exercises to your strolls might be helpful—“even in the way you make sure you create time for yourself,” Pranksy says. Many beginners do well with 10 minutes a few times a week, but feel free to do more or less as your schedule and needs change over time.
Joanne Van Zuidam is a health journalist and editor based in New Jersey.