You already know what great physical benefits walking offers, but it doesn't always have to be a frenzied fitness affair. Although a gentle, contemplative stroll burns about half the calories of a power walk, you'll get other important benefits. Follow these techniques to get the most out of your walks -- both physically and mentally.
"Confucius advised people to go for long walks without time, destination, or expectations in mind," says Tom Brown Jr., founder of Tracker School, a wilderness and nature program based in New Jersey, and author of Tom Brown's Field Guides. Mindless wandering guarantees that you'll discover surprises along the way. If you set out to look for a certain bird, for example, you'll be disappointed and consider the day wasted if you don't spot one. But when you mosey along and turn your attention to everything you see, whatever you find along the way will be a wonderful revelation. Wander anywhere -- in a state park, along a suburban trail, or even on a city street.
In her book, Walking Yoga, Ila Sarley, a founding member of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, explains an easy exercise that can lift a troubled or worried spirit. This walk is called "Walking Alone," because heat and humidity set a languid pace that's perfect for reflection. Choose a park or other lovely setting, if possible.
First, warm up with neck rolls and gentle stretches, and take some slow, deep breaths while focusing on the beauty around you. Maintain this focus on beauty throughout the walk, and make sure that your gait feels loose and natural. Hurrying should be the last thing on your mind. Devote 30 to 45 minutes so you won't feel rushed.
A favorite de-stressor for guests of Montage, a luxurious hotel and spa on Laguna Beach in California, this rejuvenating 60-minute aerobic beach walk works either solo or with partners, says Julie Raistrick, spa director. Start with 5 to 10 minutes of slow breathing as you gaze out over the ocean (or any other body of water). Send worrisome thoughts away, onto the ebbing waves and eddies. Head into thigh-high water and walk briskly through the waves, parallel to the beach, for 10 minutes. Exaggerate your walking so that you bounce and splash. Water provides natural resistance -- but it's so enjoyable you don't realize you're exercising. Next, head back to the beach and walk hard through the hot sand for 10 minutes. Then, repeat the water walk. After about 40 minutes, sit on the sand, face the water, and stretch slowly. Finish by resting quietly for a few minutes, breathing slowly and deeply.
Short walks are a perfect time to make vitamin D, an essential vitamin that helps protect against cancer and osteoporosis. Your body uses sunlight to manufacture vitamin D. The recent discovery that we need more vitamin D than previously recommended -- up to 1,000 international units a day -- prompted researchers to revamp sun recommendations. "Fair-skinned Americans should aim for getting 15 to 20 minutes of sun time, without wearing sunblock, three times a week between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.," says vitamin D researcher Dr. Michael Holick, a professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. But always use at least SPF 15 sunscreen on your face and ears, where skin cancers strike most. And never let yourself burn.
Try mixing some of these techniques with our easy, 12-week walking program.