Stressed out? Here's how to take a walk that will calm you down

6 stress-relief tips that will turn any ordinary walk into a meditation.
Walking has proved to be one of the most accessible activities that we can engage in every single day, no matter where we are.
Walking has proved to be one of the most accessible activities that we can engage in every single day, no matter where we are.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Whether it’s a trip to the spa, a ticket to the latest blockbuster at the movie theater or sweating it out at the gym — our go-to modes of de-stressing and clearing our minds have been tabled over the past six months.

And no demographic has been spared the mental health effects of the pandemic. “This has been a traumatic and difficult time for everyone, regardless of age, around the world,” said Dr. Jennifer Dragonette, Psy.D., Executive Director at Newport Institute. "Studies have indicated that young adults in particular have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic with experts seeing dramatic increases in anxiety and depression rates."

“During the pandemic and with elections nearing, there has definitely been an increase in mental stress,” Laurasia Mattingly, a meditation and mindfulness teacher said. “My students now realize the importance of finding solace internally instead of relying on a job or political leader or anything outside of them for happiness. People have to truly realize that happiness is an inside job. When we can find peace internally, we are less shaken by the outer world, no matter what it throws our way.”

This has left many people in search of safe, socially distant ways to find that inner peace — and walking has proved to be one of the most accessible activities that we can engage in every single day, no matter where we've been quarantined.

Why are walking and meditation a great combo?

Yes, walking is a great form of physical exercise, but it’s also a great opportunity to practice mindfulness, too. “Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, without judgment,” said Mattingly. Dragonette added that it also entails being “aware of one’s body, mind and feelings.”

For those that find it difficult to be in the present moment, or are skeptical about the benefits of such a practice, combining movement with your mindfulness practice can be a game changer. “Mindful walking is an easy way to incorporate meditation into everyday life and can be an easier way for beginners to learn how to practice mindfulness versus a seated meditation,” explained Dragonette.

Happiness is an inside job. When we can find peace internally, we are less shaken by the outer world, no matter what it throws our way.

Laurasia Mattingly, meditation and mindfulness teacher

Exercise and meditation both work to accomplish similar outcomes, so engaging in them simultaneously is a one-two punch when it comes to boosting our mental health. “Both regular exercise and mindfulness are proven ways to help with issues like stress, as well as support the treatment of anxiety and depression. Practicing walking meditation regularly can help one be more connected to their body and surroundings while simultaneously making them happier and healthier,” said Dragonette.

How can I turn my walk into a meditation?

For many people, meditation is so intimidating because it can be scary or uncomfortable to sit in silence with your thoughts. That’s why incorporating mindfulness practices into movement can be a helpful strategy.

Mindfulness allows the mind to come back to the present rather than living in the future or the past.

“Typically when we do physical activities like walking, our mind is elsewhere. We are thinking of emails we need to send or what we need to check off on our to do lists of ruminating on something someone said or did,” said Mattingly. “It is beneficial to do any activity mindfully because it brings body and mindfulness together. As we walk, we feel our feet touching the earth; we feel the sensation of the ground meeting the feet, each step can then become our destination. Mindfulness allows the mind to come back to the present rather than living in the future or the past.”

So to start, simply be intentional about walking, Dragonette advised. “This may feel strange as most of us walk on auto-pilot and are often tuned out, but try to focus your intentions on walking during this moment,” she said.

If you’re convinced that a mindful walk may be just what the doctor ordered, here is a simple check-in to do with yourself that next time you lace up your sneakers and hit the pavement.

6 steps to make your walk more mindful

Step 1: Note the physical sensation of walking

“As you walk, feel the sensation of each part of the physical process of walking from heel to toe including choosing one foot to start with, lifting it, moving through space and feeling it touch down,” said Dragonette. “As you are walking, pay attention to some of the sensations and movements you typically don’t pay attention to like how your feet make contact with the ground or your arms swing as you walk.”

Step 2: Run through your five senses

Start with sound. “Begin to notice the sounds of life happening around you. Notice if you’re adding judgment. Rather than judging a sound as good or bad, we can mentally note ‘loud’ or ‘pleasant’ or whatever the sounds maybe. Just noticing things as they are without adding a layer of judgment,” said Mattingly. Then move on to your other senses. “Notice and describe the world around you with all five senses: what exactly do you see, hear, smell, even taste? What textures can you feel?” said Dragonette. “The experience will be different for everyone but trying to focus on your surroundings like the weather, the breeze, birds chirping, leaves falling and the way your body moves can be great starting points.”

Step 3: Conduct a mindful body scan

Do the same no-judgment check in with your physical body, said Mattingly. “Ask yourself: How does my body feel in this moment? Tired? Restless? Energized? And can we honor our bodies however they feel in the moment?” It may be helpful to do a mental run through of each body part. “Start at the bottom of your feet and notice all the sensations. For example: Is there tingling? Is there coolness or heat? Do these sensations move? And again no judgment. We meet our feet with curiosity," said Mattingly. "We can work our way up the body noticing all sensations in the legs, the abdomen, hips, hands, arms, fingers, shoulders, neck, face and top of the head ... We can scan the body for any areas of tightness or tension and with each breath invite in a gentle softening.”

Step 4: Do an emotional check in

“Ask yourself: What mood is here? Maybe anger, maybe frustration, maybe joy, maybe all of it,” said Mattingly “Can we allow ourselves to feel how we feel without judgment, understanding there is no right or wrong way to feel?"

Step 5: Focus on your breathing

Breathing is a large part of a traditional seated meditation, and that doesn’t change just because you’re moving. "The slow breathing associated with meditation is believed to help calm the nervous system and will lead to overall well-being,” said Dragonette. Whether you are taking a relaxing, meditative walk and breathing in and out slowly, or you’re huffing and puffing through an interval walk, focusing on your breath is an easy way to bring your mind back to the present and check in with your body. Note how slowly or quickly you are breathing and how it feels to fill your lungs with air and then empty them. If you are taking a leisurely walk, or cooling down from a workout, experiment with controlling your breath by inhaling for 4 counts, holding for 4 counts, and then exhaling for 4 counts.

Step 6: Acknowledge and dismiss your thoughts

During this whole process, it is inevitable that thoughts are going to pass through your mind. It's OK — and completely normal — for your mind to wander. “Notice when your thoughts take over, then smile and let them go when you take the next step to redirect your attention back to your walk,” Dragonette explained.