Late yesterday afternoon I stepped out of my house to go for a walk. I was tired and had a lot in my head and a full evening ahead of me. I was just around the first corner when a gentleman with a fierce look on his face crossed the road and stepped onto the path right in front of me. He was plugged into headphones and carrying weights in each hand, which he pumped with each step. He seemed to be concentrating very hard. Since he was pacing quite deliberately, I started to try and keep up.
As I approached the next corner, two women were coming from the opposite direction. They were deep in conversation and I noticed they were stepping in time with each other. One of them nodded seriously at her friend just before I passed them.
They caught my attention, so I swung my head for another look. When I turned back, Mr Serious was even futher in front. Sighing, I decided it wasn't fun to try and keep up with him. I slowed my pace. Then I realised. There were three walkers, out for quite different reasons.
Walking is one of those very funtional actions. It can get you from A to B with minimal cost and relative ease. Lots of us do it. But what we use walking for can have almost endless possiblities. I've come up with seven different things I use my daily walking for. Want to know what they are?
1. Walk to get fit
This is prabably the most popular of the reasons to walk people think of. And it's quite valid. If your goal is to increase your fitness, you should probably aim to get to 60-70% of your maximum heart rate (220 minus your age) as you do so, though MHR can be rather inaccurate and is considered by some a not-so-useful measure. If you walk to get fit, try to do three to four sessions of fairly hard walking per week and be prepared to concentrate as you do so. The idea is it would be hard to maintain a constant conversation in this mode. Whilst I love walking, I must confesss, fitness is rarely one of my reasons for doing so.
2. Walk to lose weight
I imagine this reason tops the list for most walkers. Walking to lose weight is both easy and relatively pleasant to do and, so long as you have decent shoes and some time,is probably one of the most effective weight loss exercises. Why? Because the fastest weight loss actually requires a lower heart rate than getting fit, though you need to do it for longer or further to gain the benefits. (And in the long run, getting fitter is actually better for you – but that's not the point of this post.) Check this out if you're interested in knowing more about walking to lose weight. Whenever I fall off the health train, walking is my starting point to get things heading the right way again.
3. Walk to create a debrief moment
Ah, stress, that double-edged state of being. On days when I can feel the tension getting to me – which means my concentration and effectiveness is down – a walk can do wonders. There's something about getting outside and staring up at the sky which helps me put things in perspective. The rhythmical pounding of feet against the ground seems to relax my tense muscles and I can start to feel myself normalise again. My breathing also slows with my pace, which tends to start off deliberate and wind back over 20 or so minutes. This de-stress version of walking is one I always do unplugged.
4. Walk to connect and care
This was the version of walking the two women I saw were doing. It wasn't so much about the exercise as the context that was created. Because walkers aren't usually straining their hearts and it's fairly easy to match someone else's pace, walking is a valid alternative to a coffee shop. Especially when you've already done one or two of those anyway! Walking also creates good opportunities to carefully offer another person a debrief or caring moment. There's something about the side-by-sideness which seems to make it easier to raise hard topics and for the other person to respond. I think it's not so threatening and also easier because there's an action going on at the same time. Walk and talks are a valid part of my relationship toolbox.
5. Walk to connect with yourself or God
Let's face it, most of us are so busy these days it's really easy to disconnect from the spiritual/what's important part of life. If that's you (like it's often me) a walk can help you re-connect with yourself or nature or God. When I do these walks I try to find a different location to walk in, rather than my usual street options. I like the idea of being away from the city noise, so a creek or river, the beach or a mountain is my goal. Then when I get distracted by the scenery, as invaiably happens, it doesn't matter. These walks are as likely to be a wander as much as useful exercise – the benefits are elsewhere.
6. Walk like an Egyptian
Ok, not really. The song just got stuck in my head. How do you walk like an Egyptian, anyway?
6. Walk to plan or process
The real sixth way I walk is to sort through something I'm thinking or planning. It's a combination of acknowledging that sitting at a computer desk all day doesn't aid brain work and recognising that the rhythm of stepping creates some sort of order in my head. When I'm walking to plan something, I'll usually state my problem or goal out loud every so often, and also review what decisions I've made so far quite regularly. This helps the ideas to build on one another and have some cohesion. This way of walking works so well for me, I'm often tempted to take a wander during the day just to use it. The biggest challenge is remembering everything once I'm back!
7. Walk to allow your mind to wander
This last way of walking really needs to be done unplugged. It's also one of my favourite reasons to walk, although I only discovered the theory behind it this year. Apparently, directed and deliberate thinking is only one of the ways our brains work- and not necessarily when the most creative thinking occurs. Spending time allowing our minds to wander is the other half of the story. When we walk just because and think for no reason, apparently our minds are then most likely to pop out new ideas or ways of seeing things. Probably cos they have space to! I've noticed that my walks can be the most productive parts of my day, with new ideas and thinking a regular bonus of my time pounding the pavement. Isn't it funny? All those times our teachers told us off for staring out the window we could have told them we were engaged in creative problem solving!
I'm not alone in having different reasons to walk – an article in the Australian Financial Review today (p3 13/8; the paper version!) revealed a growing number of CEO's take calls while strolling and are ditching coffee meetings for walking ones. Rio Tinto's MD Andrew Harding says it's good for stress management. GrainCorp's Mark Palmquist often walks with his employees before a meeting, claiming, "You are more organised in your thought processes and what are the real issues." It's good to know I'm not the only one discovering many reasons for walking!
So there you have it, seven reasons to walk. Next time you reach for your runners, think about what you're stepping out for. I wonder which reasons you use the most. Why not try a new one this week, and see if it suits you? What other reasons to walk do you have?