Health & Fit How to Harness the Mind-Soothing and Body-Boosting Powers of Walking
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Walking is one of the simplest ways, see the world with fresh eyes, and find peace within yourself.
Walking a mile a day can do wonders when it comes to stress relief. Exercise helps flood the brain with feel-good chemicals, being in nature is calming, and walking itself is, says Koya Webb, a holistic health coach and the official trainer for Prevention’s spring Virtual Walk.
But don’t take our word for it—here’s what folks around the country have to say about why walking is so powerful. Be inspired, then head out there with tips from top experts for getting the most out of your walks.
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1. Don’t overthink it.
Any type ofis really just the practice of being fully present and aware, says Webb.“Many times we don’t check in with ourselves and our needs, which can mean we’re spending too much time in our minds, worrying or stressed,” she says.“Take a moment to be grateful for what your body does for you. Your heart pumps blood, your legs and feet carry you from place to place, and your hands do labor. Mindful walking is a chance to return to ourselves, and this frees up energy to help us maintain positive perspectives in life.”
Walking, like all things, has an expiration date, so I want to enjoy it while I can. I look forward to it each morning and regret missing out when circumstances prevent it. I find peace and calm with deliberate steps. Along my journey I make unexpected discoveries, and it’s the sense of purposeful movement combined with the feeling of freedom and well-being that makes the activity so special for me. —Terrance Carroll, Lunenburg, MA
2. Set an intention.
Think about what you want your daily walk to be about. Do you want to use it as a time to reflect on your day? Is it an opportunity to think about what your body needs and wants? Or maybe it’s simply walking toward a goal, like making it a certain distance or trying a different route. There’s no right or wrong way to go about it; just be sure the intention is unique to you and leaves you feeling energized and inspired, Webb advises.
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3. If you can, walk outside.
Ais a great training tool, but getting outdoors is really important too, says Teddy Savage, head of health and excellence at Planet Fitness. It’s smart to walk further than the distance that you’re training for on somedays, and this can be easier to do outside when you’re not staring at the mileage on a treadmill screen. Also,“outdoor walking forces you to deal with changes to terrain, like periods of uphill and downhill, which strengthens your muscles by working them harder,” he adds.
“I noticed that my dad changed when he was in nature. During the week he was tense and monosyllabic. But in the woods, his shoulders relaxed, and he held my gaze longer and spoke fluidly and openly. When he died of lung cancer, I was emotionally paralyzed. But in his spirit, I laced up my sneakers and started walking when I could find no other reason to get out of bed. Every walk was tear-laced, tinged with memories; grief made it difficult to pick up my feet. But then something remarkable happened: Walking allowed me to let go as I faced the reality of life without my father.” —Cassie L. Taylor, Olympia, WA
4. Listen to tunes.
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Bopping to your favorite songs can help you walk better and breathe smarter.“Music, or even just humming a tune in your head, can be helpful when it comes to stride and even breathing,” says Savage.“Try to match your foot strikes and breaths to the rhythm. This helps ensure that you’re using your energy efficiently, which can lead to a better time or simply push you to finish.”
“Plugging my earbuds in, I walk to bring order back to my brain. The world I’m forced into breeds chaos and anxiety, but the world I choose—the walking world—is where I can focus on all that brings me joy. The notes of the song, the squirrels scampering up a tree, the wind through my ponytail...it realigns my thoughts. It reins me back in to a place where it’s OK to let go and to just be. —Christina DeVantier, Buffalo
5. Or, just listen.
Pay attention to the sounds you encounter, tune in to your thoughts and emotions, orthat helps you channel the right message and energy for the day, says Webb:“Over time, and with practice, your awareness will expand to include more aspects of your body and your environment.”
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“I’m a traveler, and the best way to experience anew place is by foot—you don’t miss little details like the smells of local restaurants or the sound of people chatting. When the pandemic started, I was still new to the area, so I started taking long walks around my neighborhood. I got to know my neighbors, what their gardens looked like, and that they loved barbecuing and having bonfires in the warm weather. I became part of a community. —Alysa Pomer, New Haven, CT
6. Carry some weights.
Strength training is an important part of any exercise routine, walking included, so why not try bringing the weights from your living room to the sidewalk?“Carrying light weights while you walk can add a little extra challenge to your workout as well as help improve your arm swing so your legs aren’t doing all the work,” says Savage. Trying a, if you’re interested, can boost your cardiorespiratory fitness (a.k.a. your endurance) to help you walk longer or faster. But don’t walk with ankle weights—these can mess with your gait, leading to potential injury, he says.
7. Add drills.
Spice up your walk by incorporating different forms of exercise such as power skips, walking lunges, side shuffles, hills, or intervals ofor .“Adding these functional drills can help improve your performance by strengthening your muscles and loosening your hips, two things that propel you forward,” Savage says.
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8. Find excuses to walk.
Tack on extra steps wherever you can, and don’t be afraid to get creative. Challenge yourself to walk up and down every aisle of the grocery store instead of heading straight to the one you need, walk or bike to the post office instead of hopping in the car, or volunteer to drag the trash cans out front on garbage night. Any movement counts!
“I walk for all the moments I almost never had. I was diagnosed with blood clots in my leg and lungs when I was 13 weeks pregnant. In the ambulance, I imagined every moment I would cherish with my baby if we both made it. We did—but that scare inspired my will to walk now so I’ll be healthy for every future moment. Now I have a little walking buddy who keeps me going and loves to watch the neighborhood dogs as I push her in her stroller.” —Miranda Weiss, Livingston, TX
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Prevention.
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