Go Take a Hike

The latest from Practicing Mental Illness:

I like to make the point that in the maelstrom of mental illness, where emotions, thoughts and behavior often seem beyond our control, we can retain control of our physical fitness. To approach mental illness from a healthy place of physical wellness can give us a leg up on recovery. That fitness and the subsequent benefits to our mental health can be attained by something as simple as walking.

A study of 4,500 people with mood disorders, measured across age groups, found that walking is always related to an improvement in mental health when those who walk are compared to groups who do not exercise at all. Always. In fact, people who walk for 30 minutes 3 – 5 times a week have a 30% reduced risk of becoming depressed.

The physical effects are just as astounding. So many diseases comorbid with affective disorders, like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, pulmonary disease, musculoskeletal disease and obesity, can be positively impacted by walking. It’s about as simple an exercise as you can get, but for the mind it may be one of the most effective. Sure, as with any other movement practice you can buy special shoes and clothes and apps that track your steps, but you don’t have to. You just have to get out and walk. It’s really a joy and it gets you outside into fresh air and sunlight. I even like walking in the rain.

Most people with mood disorders lead sedentary lives, and over 60% are overweight. That’s astounding, and so easy to fix.

I shoot for 10,000 steps, or about five miles per day. This is a lot, but not as much as you think. Just wandering around, from the couch to the refrigerator or out to get the mail, the average person walks 2,000 to 3,000 steps each day. That’s without even trying. Build in a regular walking routine and the extra steps naturally add on. Walking up and down stairs adds even more benefit. A Harvard study showed that men who walk up eight flights per day enjoy a 33% lower mortality rate. Walking, through its effects on mental health, can make you want to stay alive. Through its physical effects it can definitively help keep you alive.

Meditation

Walking can be a tremendous way to practice meditation. It brings you an opportunity to place your attention and focus on the actions of your body, and can become a vehicle to help you release or better approach the self-defining and self-defeating thoughts we often encounter before and during mood swings. This video presents some basic instructions. It can look kind of silly, but it can yield the same benefits as classic, seated meditation.

I know, I know, I say I aim to keep things secular and here’s a lesson from another Buddhist teacher. But walking meditation transcends culture and tradition, and ancient methods from diverse points of view can greatly help us here in the modern world. So take what you will from the instructions, and get up and go for a walk - either a vigorous one or a mindful one (please understand that any ads that appear on the Youtube videos I post are random and don’t carry my endorsement. Political stuff is everywhere these days. Take a break from it, and don’t let it distract you from your practice).