The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Walking Meditation: The Perfect 10-Minute Willpower Boost

Walk your way to more willpower.

If you're looking to multitask your willpower training, try walking meditation. A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Exeter, UK, found that walking for 15 minutes decreased cravings among smokers, and a 2010 at the University of Virginia study found that two weeks of regular exercise induced brain changes that suppressed cravings, and reduced drug-seeking behavior, in cocaine-addicted rats. Many studies have shown that meditation has a similar effect, reshaping the brain to have greater attention, emotion regulation, and self-control.

The following walking meditation is one of my students' favorite willpower training techniques because it can make you feel so much better immediately, even as it supports long-term changes in the body and brain.

How to Do It:
• Give yourself 10-20 minutes or longer to take a walk. Outdoors is best. If weather or obstacles make that impossible, you can walk on a treadmill or find an indoor space.

• Walk at a moderate pace, enough to get your heart rate up slightly. You don't have to walk slowly to make it a meditation. Jogging or running is fine if you prefer a faster pace.

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• Here's what makes it a meditation: As you walk, you will shift your attention to five different points of focus. Imagine that your attention is like a flashlight. You can point the flashlight in a particular direction- for example, what it feels like to breathe, or to the feeling of your feet hitting the ground as you walk-to focus your attention. For about thirty seconds to one minute, you'll point your attention to one of the five focus points listed below. Then you'll switch to the next focus point.

• After a full round of focus-switching, you'll shift to a state of open awareness for anywhere from 1-5 minutes. In this state, you're no longer trying to focus on just one thing. It's like putting away the flashlight and turning on the lights in a room. You'll allow yourself to observe and sense anything and everything that comes up in your present moment awareness of walking-what you hear, smell, see, and feel. But now is not the time for daydreaming. If the mind wanders away from your direct experience into worries, memories, planning, or fantasizing, pull it back to one specific focus point (like the breath, or what you hear). When you find your focus restored, expand back out to the state of open awareness.

• This whole cycle should take 5-10 minutes. You can repeat the cycle several times during your walk, taking your mind through the five point of focus again, and finishing the cycle with open awareness.

The Five Points of Focus:

For each point of focus, really attend to what you notice. Become an investigator of what you can observer about each point. Even imagine yourself a connoisseur of that focus point. Can you appreciate the many nuances of what you sense, and really enjoy each focus point?

1. The feeling of walking in your body. Sense your feet contacting the ground, your weight shifting, your legs moving, and your arms swinging.

2. The feeling of your breath. Notice how it feels to breathe in and breathe out. Notice any smells as you breathe in. Breathe through your nose or mouth, whichever feels most comfortable.

3. The feeling of your body in contact with the world. Bring awareness to your face, your skin, your hands, and your whole body: do you feel warmth or coolness? Sun or a breeze? A light drizzle?

4. What you can hear. Take it all in, without labeling sounds lovely (birds singing, leaves rustling) or less lovely (traffic, people shouting).

5. What you can see. Allow yourself to notice things you might otherwise miss when your mind is so distracted with worries and fantasies.

Practice whenever you need to recharge, refresh, or reboot!

Studies cited:

1. Van Rensburg et al 2009. The effects of acute exercise on attentional bias towards smoking-related stimuli during temporary abstinence from smoking. Addiction. Nov;104(11):1910-7.

2. Lynch et al. 2010. Aerobic exercise attenuates reinstatement of cocaine-seeking behavior and associated neuroadaptations in the prefrontal cortex. Biol Psychiatry. 2010 Aug 6. [Epub ahead of print]

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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