Advance Performance | How Can Mindful Walking Change Your Brain?
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How Can Mindful Walking Change Your Brain?

How Can Mindful Walking Change Your Brain?

We know there are numerous mental and physical benefits of taking a daily walk and partaking in regular exercise such as running.

New research from Chih-Hsiang Yang at Penn State University, published in the journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise, has discovered being mindful of your breathing, physical movement and sense of your surroundings whilst walking has an increased boost on mental well being. The research tracked the participants’ mental states throughout the day.  The main finding was participants reported lower levels of stress when they were up and moving around, and this fell further when the exercise was combined with being mindful.

The 158 students who took part in the two week study had a special mobile phone app which randomly prompted the participants eight times a day to answer questions about their current activity and states of mind. They were asked if they were stressed or anxious, as well as questions designed to assess mindfulness, and to give details whether they were currently active, taking exercise, or sedentary.

Yang conducted a follow up research project with adults to explore the causal role of mindfulness on lower negative states of being, participated in an outdoor mindfulness activity then reported on their feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. Yang found that the mindful walking was associated with lower levels of these feelings.

Clinical psychologist Dr Cinzia Pezzolesi,  director of The Mindfulness Project advocates mindful walking as an ideal way to introduce mindfulness as a daily habit into your life particularly if you struggle to take time out to for mindfulness exercises. She recommends concentrating completely on how you walk to focus the mind:

Anchor your attention on the lower part of your body and the first thing you notice is your stance and your shift of balance. Then you place your foot on the ground and you feel the sensation of the sole of your foot on the floor…..Whenever we focus on one thing only we give our minds a bit of a break.”

In an earlier blog, Norman Doidge and The Power of Neuroplasticity we explored the effect of mindful walking on neuroplasticity – or how our neural pathways can be reformed through our conscious thought and repeated behaviour. Building our dendrites through our thoughts and behaviour is a core subject on our Advance courses in changing behaviour. Walking is such a habitual task – and yet changing the way we pursue this almost autonomous activity can physical alter our neural pathways through repeated conscious practice.

John Pepper, from South Africa, developed Parkinson’s Disease in the 1960s. In 1994, enrolling on a walking programme he consciously focused on developing a faster new walking style which built up distance, time and speed.  As he concentrated on the movement of his limbs and posture, he overcame the gait, tremors and balance issues. John continues to pursue his mindful walking programme now in his 80s, and teaches his technique to sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease all over the world.

Research on neuroplasticity linking to mindful exercise and walking continues to prove the positive physical effect on the neural pathways from conscious thought and repeated behaviours. This includes dementia research, studies to overcome obsessive behaviour and sensitivities in autism, and ex servicemen and women building dendrites and mapping the brain for them to develop movement with artificial limbs.

Mindful Walking is a concept that we can integrate into our daily lives to not only boost our mental well being, but redefine and strengthen our dendrites, physically changing our neural pathways through conscious thought and repeated behaviour. Take control of your thoughts and behaviour by forming or joining a walking programme.  Add the goal of a 10K into your Life List so that you reap the physical and mental benefits, and change your brain for the better!

If you are unsure how to start, Headspace has an excellent guided mindful walking exercise on their website.