Stress follows you everywhere, even into your workouts, and its voice is powerful. It reminds you how much stuff you have to do and how many things you've been putting off. It's the nemesis that drags your body down, making you feel sluggish, convincing you that your workout is hard. If only you could dump your stress. Take a break. But your plate's loaded. Time is precious. Unless you combine a workout for your body with a workout for your mind. You can do it with mind-body walking.

Nothing New

Henry David Thoreau was aware of mind-body walking more than 100 years ago when he wrote, "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit."

Gloria Keeling, president of Fitness Professionals International in Maui and a mind-body expert, offers this definition of a mind-body workout.

"It's exercise with an internal component," says Keeling. That could mean focusing on breathing while ]]>strength training]]> or listening to the rhythm of the water while ]]>swimming]]>.

]]>Walking]]> just happens to provide one of the greatest vehicles for melding mind with body.

"We're wired to walk," says Carolyn Scott Kortge, author of The Spirited Walker and a master's level racewalker.

What Is Mind-Body Walking?

Kortge describes mind-body walking as spirited walking.

"It's walking that's spirited in pace and thought," she says. "It's aerobic mindfulness."

In other words, it's something you're probably not used to doing. If you're like most people, your mind never stops doing chores, even when you exercise. You know all too well how high you've loaded your plate, and so while you're exercising, thoughts clang in your head.

"For decades, we've engaged in mindless exercise," Kortge says. "And we all talk to ourselves as we exercise. Spirited walking means becoming aware of that talk and choosing to stop it."

Turning Off the Mental Chatter

Kortge remembers when she first chose to stop her mental chatter. At 46, she encountered walking as an aerobic activity and challenged her body to achieve a 12-minute-mile pace. She did. She began racing, which taught her why she needed to work her mind and body together.

"I kept telling myself I wasn't doing well," Kortge says. "I had to learn how to stop that."

Now at 57, though she no longer races, she walks with greater awareness.

"I understand that there's an exciting connection between who I am mentally and physically," she says. "Rather than being enemies, we're allies."

What Can Mind-Body Walking Do for You?

  • Improve your health—Whether it's lowering blood pressure or decreasing levels of "bad" ]]>cholesterol]]>, walking offers numerous physical benefits.
  • Reduce stress—When walking becomes a mind-body workout, the mental benefits increase. The most obvious benefit is a reduction in stress, and therefore, stress-related illnesses.
  • Achieve your goals—Spirited walking also allows you to achieve what you might never have thought possible. For instance, maintaining a 3 mph (miles per hour) pace while walking can be difficult. However, if you were to repeat to yourself the mantra, "I am strong and I am fit," walking at that pace would seem easier. "Thoughts control your effort," Kortge says.
  • Enhance personal growth—In addition, mind-body walking improves ]]>self-esteem]]>, stimulates creativity, keeps exercise from getting boring, and allows for present moment awareness. "You learn to stay in the present," Keeling says. "Maybe you feel your feet striking the ground or you start noticing the colors around you."

Learning to Focus

So how do you take a spirited walk? By tuning out the mindless chatter in your head and focusing.

Focusing while you walk, though, takes practice.

"It takes time to learn to concentrate, to be in the moment," Keeling says. "Your mind will probably wander in a million different directions, but keep pulling it back."

Kortge also admits that it's hard to focus for an entire workout. So set a goal of focusing for five or 10 minutes at a time. You don't have to do this every workout; in fact, Kortge advises varying your workouts. If you walk with buddies, make a pact to walk in silence for a short stretch. Kortge also recommends leaving the headphones behind or at the very least, listening to instrumental music.

Activities to Bring Mind and Body in Tune

To experience mind-body walking, try adding these activities to your walks:

  • Breathing—"This is such an important part of spirited walking because it gives you physical energy and the meditative aspect," Kortge says. Focus on breathing into your belly so that you feel your stomach expand. Then establish a rhythm with your steps. Consider saying "in, two, three," as you inhale and "out, two, three" as you exhale. Or count in four's if that feels more natural. When Kortge does this, she breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth, pursing her lips to control the exhale.
  • Visualizing—Think of a major goal that you're working toward. Maybe you're writing a book or trying to lose 20 pounds. If so, walk as if you've accomplished these goals. In your mind, congratulate yourself for having met your goal or tell yourself how wonderful it feels. "Feel the rush in your body, that incredible high that would be gushing through your limbs," Keeling says.
  • Repeating affirmations—To quell your self-talk, create a positive phrase and think of it as you walk. Say a prayer if you want. Just keep it simple, using one or two-syllable words. For example, you might recite "I am here, I am breathing" one syllable or word per step. When you do this, you'll pull yourself into the present. You'll also start breathing more deeply which will boost your energy. Most importantly, you'll return home refreshed and invigorated.