Could it really be that simple? Can we really reduce our stress by practicing what is known as “mindful walking” each day? Researchers from Charité University in Berlin set out to study this, comparing a group of people participating in a mindful walking program with a group of people who went about their stressful lives thinking they were on a waiting list for the walking program. This is the story:
Dr. Michael Teut and colleagues at Charité ‘s Institute for Social Medicine, Epidemiology and Health Economics studied the effect of a mindful walking program in people who were assessed as having “high levels of perceived psychological distress.” The research team based their study on principles of Buddhist mindfulness meditation, seeking moment-to-moment experiences without being lost in worry and distress.
The mindful walking program consisted of eight 1-hour training sessions over four weeks. Each session took place in streets and parks near the Charité’s outpatient clinic for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and included the following:
-Meet and greet
-Short warm-up and walking instructions
-Walking for 10 minutes
-Mindful walking for 10 minutes
-A quick feedback round to share experiences among the group
-Walking for 10 minutes
-Return to the meeting point
Mindful Walking: The core mindful activity was for walkers to contemplate the sensations of walking, focusing on moment-to-moment experience without allowing their minds to wander into worry. If distressing thoughts entered their minds, they were taught to focus awareness on breathing in and exhaling.
The researchers assessed stress levels in both the walkers and the people on the waiting list with Cohen’s Perceived Stress Scale. Originally published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in 1983, the stress scale was developed by Sheldon Cohen, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, and colleagues from the University of Oregon. Today’s scale has 10 questions answered on a scale of “never” to “very often.” An example of one of the questions is, “In the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all of the things you had to do?”
The walkers and waiting list subjects were assessed at 4 weeks (the duration of the formal mindful walking program) and 8 weeks (one month after the formal walking program ended) using Cohen’s scale and several other questionnaires that measure health and well-being. The walkers showed good improvement over the course of the study, but those gains only held after the first month if the walkers continued to practice mindful walking. After the 8-week survey, the people on the waiting list were invited to participate in a free 1- month mindful walking program to give them the benefit of the program.
The results of the Berlin study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine were intriguing. Not only is it easy to build mindful walking into our daily routines, but with practice, we could apply it to other situations where moment-to-moment attention could take us away from otherwise stressful experiences such as being put on hold on the telephone. Give it a try and see if you can be a little more mindful while walking to work or waiting in line!
More recent research by a team from Clemson University, UCLA, and the University of Massachusetts has found that stress reduction can be achieved in as little as 4 weeks of mindful walking. There is promising new research by another team from Penn State University and the University of South Carolina that has found mindfulness practice combined with walking can promote healthy brain aging in older adults. Mindfulness and walking are looking like a win-win…The great outdoors awaits!
Teut M, Roesner EJ, Ortiz M, Reese F, Binting S, Roll S, Fischer HF, Michalsen A, Willich SN, Brinkhaus B. Mindful Walking in Psychologically Distressed Individuals: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 31 July 2013.
Cohen, Sheldon, et al. “A Global Measure of Perceived Stress.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 24, no. 4, [American Sociological Association, Sage Publications, Inc.], 1983, pp. 385–96, https://doi.org/10.2307/2136404.
Shi L, Welsh RS, Lopes S, Rennert L, Chen L, Jones K, Zhang L, Crenshaw B, Wilson M, Zinzow H. A pilot study of mindful walking training on physical activity and health outcomes among adults with inadequate activity. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2019 Jun;44:116-122.
Yang CH, Hakun JG, Roque N, Sliwinski MJ, Conroy DE. Mindful walking and cognition in older adults: A proof of concept study using in-lab and ambulatory cognitive measures. Preventive Medicine Reports. 2021 Jul 14;23:101490.
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