As the year comes to a close, my wish is that each of us will be able to take some time to reflect on 2012 and look ahead with enthusiasm to 2013, despite whatever challenges we may anticipate encountering in the new year. As one cycle ends and another begins, we have an opportunity to make choices for the new year, and I hope that each of us is able to commit to putting into practice steps that will enable us to relate to stress more masterfully and, in so doing, to live more fully.
As I continue to outline the main tenets of the nine natural steps in this blog series, I would like to close 2012 with one of the most practical of the steps: exercise. Specifically, I want to talk about walking. Making a commitment to introducing daily exercise into your life in 2013 is a tremendously beneficial decision to make.
Daily walking was one of the most important components in my learning to master stress and recovering from my breakdown. Walking is the most natural form of exercise for humans; our evolutionary makeup is built for it. This is why I am a strong advocate of a brisk, uninterrupted daily walk for at least one hour. Although I support and encourage any form of exercise that an individual finds enjoyable and useful, I strongly recommend embracing the following walking program for optimal health and to achieve maximum benefit from the nine steps.
As the father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, said, “Walking is man’s best medicine.” Although I tried many different forms of exercise while I was rebuilding myself, such as running, cycling, and swimming, after much research and trial and error, I’ve concluded that walking is the most effective and natural mode of exercise. I was first motivated to study the benefits of walking while observing my grandmother’s transformation after the death of her husband, when she adopted a daily walking practice. She had been overweight for as long as I could remember. I was impressed, however, by her increased vitality and the amount of weight she lost from her daily walks. She ended up maintaining excellent health right up until her death at the age of ninety-six. Having now experienced the benefits of daily walking myself, I am sure that this component of her lifestyle contributed greatly to her robust health.
The human body was clearly not built to fly or swim, as is evident when comparing our makeup to that of a bird or a fish. On closer examination, it also is apparent that we were not built to jog or run long distances, which places our joints under a high amount of strain. While the origins of running, for humans, lie in the fight-or-flight mode, running has grown in popularity as a form of exercise; more than 425,000 Americans ran a marathon in 2010, up 20 percent from the year 2000. While it clearly requires dedication and the building of a strong, healthy body to run a marathon, the New York Times reports that 90 percent of people who train for a marathon sustain some type of injury in the process. The benefits of running and any other form of exercise must be weighed against the costs, and it is up to each individual to decide what suits his or her needs. Having been a long-distance runner as well as a hurdler and sprinter at school and having had a continued interest in exercise and sport all my life, I am aware of the benefits and costs of different forms of exercise. I have thoroughly researched and tested various modes against one another.
Daily walking to promote health is going back to basics, supporting the body in the most natural and effective way. Consider other forms of exercise and how there is a limit to how long one can continue for at a time, whereas, when it comes to walking, people are able to walk comfortably for hours at a time, further evidence of walking being the optimal exercise for sustainable enjoyment and benefits. Just as Chinese healers utilize nerve endings in the feet to promote overall wellness, walking stimulates those same 7,200 nerve endings, helping to balance your entire system. Longevity studies often reveal that those living the longest tend to walk daily as a form of exercise, well into their golden years. The simplest and most effective way to implement an effective and sustainable exercise routine is to walk briskly for sixty to eighty minutes every day, on your own, without interruption.
This kind of walk doesn’t allow for any distractions such as talking with friends, using a cell phone, or listening to music, and it is certainly not compatible with watching TV on a treadmill. Any such activities must take place outside of your primary walking time and should not steal away from time to focus and reflect within yourself. Later, once your body has been strengthened and cleansed by your walking program, you may choose to walk for one hour, three to four times a week.
If possible, immerse yourself in the natural environment, whether walking on grass, on sand, in a forest, by a riverbank, or in a park. The undulating surface of the natural environment is stimulating and invigorating for the body and the central nervous system. Nature is what the body has developed to expect. Your walk should always be enjoyed outside so that you can breathe the fresh air and embrace the natural environment in natural light. This is indeed a joy to be treasured in life. Additionally, sunlight is an irreplaceable source of vitamin D, which is produced by our bodies as a response to our skin’s exposure to the sun. The reality is that many of us do not live near a beach or a forest, so use a nearby park or sidewalk when needed, and enjoy your walk. Even in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, I have walked consistently through summer and winter between six a.m. and seven a.m. Heading out early avoids traffic, and despite the urban background of noise and skyscrapers, it still offers much more than a treadmill in an enclosed gym. Don’t let a little rain or cold deter you from your walk; dress appropriately for the conditions, and do your best to walk outside whenever you can. Even though I miss walking barefoot on the beaches of Sydney, Santa Monica, and Auckland, I still make the most of my surroundings by heading straight for Central Park every morning, enjoying every moment of this alone-time and the serotonin boost that this natural form of exercise provides.
The ideal time to exercise is early in the morning. I encourage putting aside this time to begin your day, which prepares you for the rest of the activity to come and allows you time for reflection. Ensure that your sixty to eighty minutes of walking is continuous, as pauses will limit some of the benefits and the stimulation that the exercise provides. Your morning walk should be brisk, close to your maximum speed, with your elbows bent and hands swinging up to eye level if you are able. This gives you comprehensive physical exercise as you engage both the upper and lower body; the activity of walking in such a way works not only the muscles of the legs but the entire body, including the hips, spine, shoulders, abdomen, and arms. The head should remain level, with your eyes taking in your surroundings or focused on where you are heading but not gazing downward as if you are low on energy.
Introducing a brisk walk that adheres to the above guidelines into your daily routine is a highly effective way of conditioning the body and mind while also releasing stress. As we prepare for the activity of a new year, I hope you will take some time to rest, reflect, and decide on your true health and well-being priorities for 2013.