Stress Walking: A Step in the Right Direction

Stress Walking: A Step in the Right Direction

It had turned into one of those too-familiar days. Demands and disruptions had left the schedule in shambles. By the time I tied my walking shoes, the early dusk of a winter afternoon hovered on the horizon. It would be dark before I rounded the corner at the midway mark of my usual neighborhood loop.

As soon as I hit the street, my mind started planning dinner and scanning cupboards, pushing to squeeze fitness and food into a tight time slot. I am here and I am walking, I reminded myself mentally, pulling my attention to the present and to a fast, rhythmic walking pace. I am here and I am breathing.

Twenty minutes out, I rounded the corner and turned toward home. Now the wind that had followed my steps met me head on, slapping at my face and taunting me with a splattering of rain. No, my brain screamed. No! Not now! No rain! No wind! I'm tired. I shouldn't have started. My steps slowed. The rhythm faltered. Complaints swirled through my head: My shoulder hurts. My back is tight. I want to get home.

As I hunched forward into the wind and rain, I felt the battle more than heard it. It settled like a weight in my legs. Then awareness pulled my shoulders back. I heard the affirmation in my mind. I am here and I am walking. I am here and I can do this. Yes, I can. Yes, I can.

The words pushed aside protests and complaints. They broke the trance of mindless babble. The chant began to match the rhythm of my steps until it condensed into a single word: Yes! I affirmed with each footstep. Yes. . . Yes ... Yes. By the time I reached home, I had crossed a border. I had entered a new state of mind.

Day after day I return to the border. I step outside the door of my home and confront the hurdles on my walking path: I don't have time. It's cold. It's hot. I'm tired.

Anyone who walks regularly is familiar with the journey. No matter whether you walk alone or in a group, on treadmills or sidewalks or trails, you've stumbled over mental obstacles in your path. You've heard the hecklers who line the route. Summer, winter, rain, or shine, they wait beside the path. They hurl "to-dos" and "should-have-dones" in taunts that slow your step. Sometimes they even turn you back. But walkers who learn to silence these distracters travel to invigorating vistas. They reach inspiring heights. The peaks before us are hidden from view until we clear the fog in our own heads.

All too often we approach exercise as just another task -- maybe even a burden. We do it because we know we should. "Stress walking", some folks have labeled it as they dash off to battle calories and advancing years with frantic lunch-hour sprints. Perhaps you're familiar with the pattern. You go on automatic, pushing through the paces of exercise while thinking about other things. You return from a thirty-minute walk with urgent memos swirling in your head. Even Henry David Thoreau, living in retreat at Walden Pond in the 1800s, recognized the hazard. "I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit," he wrote. "The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is -- I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses."

The joyous connection that returns us to our senses occurs when body and mind fall into step together. It's as if we suddenly use two eyes instead of one to focus on a goal. Focus restores perspective. It transforms fitness walks into retreats of renewal and realignment. Focus guides us safely past the distractions that detour us from a path of well-being for body, mind, and soul.

Focus elevates ordinary walkers to the level of spiritual "saunterers," as Thoreau found on his meditative walks through the Massachusetts countryside. He credits the religious pilgrims of the Middle Ages for giving rise to the word. Walkers who undertook pilgrimages to the Holy Land, la Sainte Terre, came to be known as Sainte-Terrers. Not every walker reaches holy lands, Thoreau cautioned. Those who do are saunterers -- not idle wanderers, as the modern word suggests, but purposeful travelers with a clear goal in mind. Travelers who leave familiar routes and routines to pursue a larger goal.

Surely, any expedition that leads to a greater sense of wholeness must be a pilgrimage to holy lands. Anyone who journeys toward spiritual and physical well-being earns the name of Sainte-Terrer. The pilgrimage on which I set forth as a walker urged me ahead at a brisk aerobic pace. It pushed me past fears I'd adopted long ago about getting hurt, getting dirty, or getting in trouble by letting my body run wild. Then, as the rhythm of walking teamed up with focus, I found a unity of movement that strengthened all of me. I became a "spirited walker".

A Step in the Right Direction

Millions of people already walk for fitness and health. The number surges with every study that delivers fresh evidence of walking's healthy contribution to everything from weight loss to memory improvement. We buy treadmills, pedometers, and heart monitors. We memorize cholesterol levels and aerobic heart rates. It's all a step in the right direction, but without focus, exercise walking loses much of its potency. By aligning the energies of muscles and mind, you make exercise more fun, more efficient, and more effective.

Reprinted with permission of HarperSanFrancisco,
an imprint of HarperCollins, Inc. ©1998.

Recommended Book:

This article was excerpted from the book:

The Spirited Walker
by Carolyn Scott Kortge.

The Spirited Walker by Carolyn Scott Kortge. No matter how fast or far you walk, no matter what you goals or fitness level, whether you walk on a treadmill or in a forest, alone or with companions, this guide will lead you along a path of mental and physical exercise that travels from sole to soul. Author Carolyn Scott Kortge, an award-winning journalist and masters racewalker, offers a wealth of easy-to-do breathing exercises, visualisations, and active affirmations that transform fitness walking into a meditative practice – of awareness, spiritual renewal, and physical vitality. 'Whatever your motivation for walking – relaxation, aerobic fitness, weight loss, a healthy heart, or interaction with nature – a spirited walk can become the first step in a spiritual journey,' Kortge says. With humour, anecdotes, and practical advice, she shows you how to take the first step and motivates you to walk for life with an approach for fitness that puts care of the soul on equal footing with care of the body.

For more info or to order this book.

About The Author

Carolyn Scott Kortge

Carolyn Kortge is a journalist & feature writer for newspapers in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Oregon. She has captured numerous national awards for excellence. She holds bronze and silver medals from the USA Track and Field Association's National Masters Championships and was formerly ranked among the top five women racewalkers in her age group. Visit her website at www.spiritedwalker.com