I debated a long while about the “W” topic for the ABC’s of Living Well. My dilemma: Walking or Wisdom? Walking is something that most of us do without even thinking about it. Of course, that is unless (or until) there is pain, an injury, or some other biological limitation to walking. Medical literature praises the many ways walking provides massive benefits to all aspects of health and wellbeing. Then there is wisdom! Much like inspiration, wisdom is something that may be difficult to recognize or practice. However, if wisdom can be observed in others, it can be developed and cultivated for anyone. At its core, wisdom is about humility. Since I am certainly not an all-knowing authority on wisdom, I was hesitant to choose it for the “W” entry. I consulted with various mentors and friends about my walking/wisdom conundrum, and one of them suggested that I use both concepts, as both have great merit. A wise suggestion! So, I set about weaving the two together in hope that it will inspire the wellness practice of Wisdom Walking. If walking is not possible due to biological limitations, then taking some of the wisdom concepts noted below into meditation or a journaling practice can also be of benefit.
Let’s begin with walking. Most of us know that walking is a beneficial low impact form of exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends moderate activity for at least 150 minutes a week. Walking for just 30 minutes a day, five days a week can help to burn calories, improve immune function, lower blood sugar, strengthen the cardiovascular system, and can even serve as a mood lifter. Walking in outdoor spaces or forest bathing encourages taking deep breaths, letting the mind wander, and taking in nature’s beauty. Walking can provide an opportunity to “walk off” frustrations, worries, or concerns. It can also provide time for inner dialog about self-care, relationships, creative projects, or just plain daydreaming. A higher impact iteration of walking is the ever popular and time-tested Power Walking! This kind of walking places the emphasis on speed and arm motions to increase health benefits.
When we add mindfulness to walking, there is a whole new level of benefit. Mindful walking means that one is walking while remaining consciously present and aware of the surrounding environment. Mindful walking can be a formal practice (i.e. walking in a spiral, circle, or labyrinth). It may include breathing in a conscious way, uttering or silently reciting a mantra, affirmations, or prayers. Sometimes referred to as “walking meditation” this practice has all the health benefits of a nature walk and it contributes to a feeling of being balanced and grounded. It can help to reduce anxiety and emotional distress, spark creativity, and leave us feeling calm and serene.
Caregivers tend to walk a lot and may find themselves taking thousands of steps a day due to the duties they perform for the care recipient. All those steps may contribute to a healthier body, but they can also be entangled with feelings of anxiety, worry, stress, or exhaustion. Even a brisk ten-minute walk outdoors without having to complete a task or provide care for another person or companion animal can help to refresh the body, improve concentration, and uplift mood. Caregivers, try adding a ten-minute walk to your day. This could be done during lunchtime or a midafternoon break; or while the care recipient is napping, reading, watching a movie, or otherwise engaged.
In thinking about walking as a wellness practice, it is important to mention that there are some medical conditions that contraindicate power walking or even leisure walking. Some examples include:
- For patients with Post Exertional Malaise (PEM), and certain neurological, lung or heart conditions even the gentlest form of exercise can cause more harm than good. It is always important to consult with medical professionals before starting a new exercise program or making adjustments to a tried-and-true program.
- Persons with mobility limitations may need assistive devices such as crutches, canes, walking pole(s) or stick(s), walker, knee walker, or a wheelchair. Adjusting to these devices and new or progressing walking limitations will take time, flexibility, and patience for both users and caregivers. Whether persons using assistive devices are navigating daily life at home, traveling, going to appointments, or undertaking outdoor exercise, it is important to assess fall risk and mitigate trip hazards. An occupational therapist, physical therapist, social worker, or nurse can help to identify hazards and lower fall risk.
- Being able to walk freely through life offers a sense of dignity and autonomy. At the end of life, when maintaining dignity is so important, the ability to walk freely begins to change. A patient in physical decline may need less walking and more rest or sleep. As physical strength wanes, they should not be encouraged or expected to take walks. I have observed caregivers insist that a declining patient “get some fresh air” or “just take a short walk to the living room”. During those observations, one patient collapsed; the other became emotionally distressed to the point of tears. If the patient wants to take a walk, supportive assistance can be provided by walking alongside and providing an appropriate assistive device.
Here’s where we start to explore wisdom. As noted earlier, wisdom is something that can be cultivated. It is certainly something that we can learn and grow into over periods of time, but it is not relegated only to the “older and wiser” elder population. There is wisdom to be found in our children, teens, companion animals, adults of all ages, and yes, even those facing final days. The dying process is a unique experience for everyone, but within each experience there appears to be an innate wisdom of what is needed for comfort. To be a wise caregiver for a dear one in hospice, the key is deep listening and a willingness to be flexible and follow the patient’s lead.
Learning, developing, and cultivating wisdom can take many forms and is most often an organic process. It is possible to grow in wisdom after traumatic (or celebratory) events of all kinds. One can study the philosophy of wisdom written by ancient scholars such as Socrates or Plato. Wisdom can also be gleaned while observing and practicing the things that wise individuals demonstrate. I feel fortunate to have many wise friends and mentors of all ages. Here are a few things they demonstrate on the regular:
- practicing nonjudgement, respect, and understanding
- learning from and moving beyond past mistakes; hindsight is 20/20
- being mindful and present
- doing no harm; going easy on self and others; remembering our humanity
- letting go of “either/or” and adopting “both/and”
- avoiding toxic positivity and managing negative emotions
- practicing gratitude, compassion, and good humor
- balancing personal thoughts and feelings; seeking professional help if needed
- remaining curious about everything; being a life-long learner
- maintaining healthy boundaries; not being an enabler for harmful behaviors
- practicing discernment that arises from personal lived experience
- being willing to expand personal perspectives about anything
- being on the lookout for delightful surprises while being prepared for loss and grief
- being at peace with not having all the answers; giving up know-it-all behavior
- letting go of perfectionism, arrogance, and condescending behavior
- letting others have their truth, albeit different than our own
- taking comfort in the small things
- allowing transitions to be gentle as possible; being open to the many forms of grace
- accepting that “family” may include many beings not connected to personal biology
- finding our people; fostering healthy community
- being independent and autonomous, while interconnected and open to support of others
Another aspect of wisdom arises from a sense of social responsibility. This means working toward the greater good for everyone, or win/wins across the board. This includes fostering a culture of kindness, practicing openness, empathy, and trust. It means asking good questions, deeply listening, and paying attention to nuanced answers and body language. It also means making decisions based on both short and long-term consequences for self, others, and the planet. Doing so requires a deep awareness and a mindful attitude about self and others. Doing so insists on embracing our humanity and remembering to be humble and at times, in awe, of our universal interconnectedness.
In summary, the wellness practice of Wisdom Walking invites us to take any of these wisdom concepts for a mindful walk. Here’s how to do that. Carve out some time today. It doesn’t have to be a long time. Ten or fifteen minutes is enough. Choose a topic from the wisdom concept list above, such as “take comfort in the small things”. Lace up your boots, step outside, take a deep breath and let your mind wander into some “small things” that give you comfort. You will be amazed at what arises. The idea of giving yourself time to ponder small comforts in life may be a comfort in and of itself! This offers a break from pondering all the things that do not give comfort; things that may cause anxiety, stress, or sorrow. This mindful walk can lead to deeper breaths, less wrinkles in the brow, and a calmer overall continence. My experience of wise mentors is that they are, above all things, calm! Wishing you opportunities for walking and wisdom today and always.