The mindful way to walk
It’s not always easy to try something new or different but sometimes you do…and boom, you love it. And maybe, just maybe, you find it addictive in the best way imaginable. That’s what happened to Jim Nicolai, MD , an integrative physician and health coach in Tucson, AZ, and author of Integrative Wellness Rules: A Simple Guide to Healthy Living (Hay House, Inc.). His passion? A combination of mindful meditation and walking called “breathwalking.”
Nicolai had thought meditation was a little too slow and time consuming for him—then he tried this approach. “Through breathwalking, I can access the same state of calm as people doing yoga and meditation but on my own terms,” he says. Think of it as moving meditation—you can practice it at any time during the day and almost anywhere.
The best part, though, is that you may feel more at peace immediately. “By encouraging people to take full and even breaths instead of quick shallow ones, breathwalking could teach them how to reach that state of calm where the brain shuts down, which might help them sleep better,” Nicolai says. Case in point: In a study from PLOS ONE, a single session of slow breathing helped reduce anxiety in musicians who were stressed about performing.
A brain booster?
None of this surprises Charles Francis, co-founder and director of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute and author of Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple (Paradigm Press). “If done properly, the effects of meditation are immediate, as you may be more calm, focused and steady in your emotions, and have greater control over a racing mind,” he says.
And it could help your brain, too: A study in the journal Stress showed that meditation could increase levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF ), which may help the brain grow new cells. Other research has shown that meditation might help shrink gray matter in the amygdala—the fear and anxiety center of the brain—as well as boost other areas responsible for attention and short-term memory.
The real payoff, however, may come after your walk. Just 15 minutes of focused-breathing meditation could help you make smarter choices, according to a study in Psychological Science. As a result, you might think twice about having dessert when you watch TV, which could go a long way to helping you reach your goals. “Significant research has confirmed many of the health benefits of mindful meditation, including weight loss,” says Francis, noting that it helps you develop awareness of your body and strengthens your commitment to a healthy life. Add in the extra steps from breathwalking, especially if you’ve been sedentary most of the day, and you’ve found a powerful new weight-loss ally.
How to breathwalk
Breathwalking involves syncing up your breath with your steps. There are two different techniques, both of which are easy to learn:
Waves Breathe in continuously for a count of 4 and then exhale in one long, slow breath for another 4. With each count, take a step.
Stairs You’re still counting to 4 and stepping with each count. But this time, instead of a long continuous breath in and out, you’ll take 4 consecutive individual inhales, one with each step, and then give 4 separate exhales, one with each step. As you breathe, try to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. But if that doesn’t work for you, do whatever feels comfortable. Try it in your neighborhood, in a park or on a city sidewalk.
For the ultimate calming experience, head to a labyrinth. Not sure if you have one near you? Go to labyrinthlocator.com to search in your area.
Your breathwalking plan
Set aside some time to breathwalk after dinner— Nicolai says even 10 or 15 minutes will help relax you, aid digestion and set you up for better sleep. Focus on one kind of breath, or mix and match. Here are two hybrid walks that Nicolai recommends:
Energizing walk: Alternate one minute of Stairs with one minute of halfsies— Stairs on the inhale and Waves on the exhale (think climbing the steps of a slide and then sliding down). Repeat for 10 minutes or longer.
Calming walk: Start with two minutes of Stairs. Then do five minutes of halfsies. Follow this with Waves for the next five minutes, or as long as your walk lasts.