It’s no great revelation that a stroll beside a gently gurgling river or through a light-dappledforest is a great way to clear your head and to feel at peace with the world. But a new study has shown that remaining mindful while walking and moving throughout the day increases the positive effect on your mental wellbeing.
Mindfulness, which means retaining an awareness of your breathing, physical sensations and surroundings, has become a prominent method of boosting psychological health in recent years but many people think of it as a solitary activity practiced in a quiet location. The new research shows that to be a myth.
The research, carried out by Chih-Hsiang Yang at Penn State university in the US, tracked participants’ mental states as they went about their days. It found that they reported lower levels of stress when they were up and moving around, and this fell further when the exercise was combined with being mindful.
“When people were both more mindful and more active than usual, they seem to have [a] extra decrease in negative affect,” Yang said. “Being more active in a given moment is already going to reduce negative affect, but by also being more mindful than usual at the same time, you can see this amplified affect.”
Clinical psychologist Dr Cinzia Pezzolesi, clinical director of The Mindfulness Project, says that integrating the mind and body can be a powerful approach to improving one’s state of mind: “Whenever we are able to connect with physical sensations in the body we activate the part of the nervous system that counteracts the fight or flight response; so it calms us down,” she says. “Some people calm down just connecting with the breath but for some others that’s hard to do when a strong emotion is present. There’s a neurological element because walking can release the adrenaline and cortisone – the hormones that maintain our stress response. And for some people it’s simply much easier to connect with a physical sensation than with other mindful practices where you connect with your breath or emotional state.”
One good thing about mindful movement is how easy it is to make it part of your daily life, she says.
“You can always find time to mindful walk, so it can easily be integrated into your routine – when we commute, or even when we’re in our offices and we walk from one room to another.”
Just going for a stroll at lunchtime might not be enough, she adds. It’s best to approach it the right way.
“Sometimes people naturally go for a walk when they’re stressed, but what happens is they take their thoughts for a walk. What we want to do when we go for a mindful walk is to focus on the walking, on the physical sensations that you feel when you place your feet on the floor. So you anchor your attention on the lower part of your body and the first thing you notice is your stance and your shift of balance. Then you place your foot on the ground and you feel the sensation of the sole of your foot on the floor. The mind will wander because that naturally happens every 14-16 seconds, but you notice where it goes and you bring it back to your feet. And you disengage with what you don’t need – which could be your thoughts. Whenever we focus on one thing only we give our minds a bit of a break.”
We need to switch off from worrying about the past or the future and live in the here and now, she says.
“People come to mindfulness for different reasons – perhaps they are overthinking things or they are simply not present. The issue with that is that you miss out on your life – maybe you have an important call and then you go home and you want to be with your friends or kids and your mind is still stuck. That limits our ability to enjoy the present. Mindfulness allows you to enjoy the present rather than being stuck in the past or the future.”
Mindful walks are becoming a popular method of experiencing the technique. A number of mindfulness practices organise guided walks, often in the countryside or city parks.
Debbie Johnson, a teacher with Being Mindful, points out that you can experience mindful movement just as well in an urban setting as a rural one. “The myth is that in order to practise mindfulness you need to be in a beautiful setting and a lot of media have people dressed in white looking out at the sea,” she says. “Obviously that’s more peaceful than being on Oxford Street with lots of traffic but mindfulness is being aware of whatever state your mind is in. So you don’t need to be all woo-woo and zen. It’s just about being aware of what’s happening.”