The Zen of Walking

The simplest activity of all can bring big health benefits
Heather Marrs, left, and Kristin Merrill walk Booger on the Bear Creek Greenway trail in Medford. Photo by Julia MooreJulia Moore

Young or old, beginner or advanced, urban strutter or back-country hiker — walking is a universal activity that helps keeps body, mind and soul on the move. Plus it's free and accessible to anyone who is ambulatory.

Walking doesn't have to be just another necessary activity or exercise regimen. When approached with an open mind, it offers countless opportunities for personal enrichment, from stress-reduction to honed observational skills to revealing and possibly even resolving inner quandaries.

The first steps

David Chambers, an avid walker, backpacker and receiver at Ashland Outdoor Store offers tips for starting a walking program.

Pick reasonable walking times

"We want walking to decrease, not add, stress," says Chambers. "You don't want to be thinking that you have to cancel meetings; it should fit into your daily schedule."

One step at a time

Ease into a new walking schedule. "You want to be committed, but you don't want to stress out about walking seven days a week," says Chambers. Three or four walks a week might be a good beginning.

Comfort first

Wear comfortable clothing and bring water but keep things simple. "It can be a battle determining what is absolutely essential to bring," says Chambers. "For most front-country walks up to three hours, you probably only need water."

Set an intention for every walk

Fitness-related intentions might include walking a certain distance or pacing yourself so you don't have to stop while going up a hill.

"Doing this will provide more foundation and a consciousness about your walk — that I'm doing it for a reason."

Keep your eyes open

Focusing on the environment around you can help hone observation skills and bring lasting, positive effects in other areas of your life.

"Whether it's rural, urban or outdoors, there's always more than meets the eye."

Find new routes

"There's something about exploration and adventure that can work wonders in creating positive attitudes and the confidence of knowing you can brainstorm an idea, research it and then do it."

Side-by-side

Think about finding a walking partner who shares your goals. "Walking or hiking a couple days a week with someone is good," says Chambers. "It deepens the relationship, keeps things fresh and provides grist for the mill."

Stretch it out

Remember to stretch but don't overdo it, advises Chambers.

"Maybe walk a little bit, then stretch a small amount, then stretch afterwards. While you're stretching, focus on your breathing — keep it slow and regular; don't hold your breath."

"Pressure and stress from day-to-day life, career, family, extracurricular activities and volunteer work can build up," says Darin Banner, a former outings chairman for the Rogue Group of Sierra Club's Oregon Chapter and instructor for Backpacking Light, who has led wilderness walks for more than a decade. "Hiking is an escape from that reality. I rejuvenate my soul and recharge my batteries so that when I come back to civilization, I perform better at my work. I'm a happier father, and I enjoy life more."

Keep the vibe alive between walks by planning the next outing — whether it's an hour walk on a trail, an adventurous backcountry hike or exploring a new neighborhood on foot. Banner calls this "creating future memories" (after a book title) and it helps him stay buoyant during everyday tasks.

Getting familiar with the surrounding environment is a knowledge-boosting benefit of walking. Banner suggests bringing along a field book to help identify flowers, animal sign, trees and birds.

Even the Bear Creek Greenway offers plentiful flora and fauna. "Just take time to look off the pavement and see what's around there," says Banner. "I've seen plant life to enjoy, fox on the trail and a pile of small animal bones that must've been consumed by a carnivore."

Doing the same in urban settings often nets wonderful findings and helps walkers connect with nature.

Solo walking is always a "good time investment," says Banner, who uses the experience as a meditation on self-knowledge. "If you're kind of peaceful and leave yourself to your own thoughts, you get to know yourself better," he opines.

Group walks or hikes also are valuable.

"You get to see aspects of others that only come out through situations of physical exertion and getting outside of one's comfort zone — your living room, office, Starbucks or whatever," says Banner. "It's very good for building up bonds with people. Or sometimes when you get to know someone that well, you might decide they're someone you don't want to hang out with."

That's how powerful walking can be — when performed with mindfulness and awareness, putting one step in front of the other can lead to brand-new vistas, inside and out.

Jennifer Strange is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville. Reach her at jlstrange@hotmail.com.



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