How To Make Your Midday Walk A More Mindful Experience, From A 'Walking Professor'

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Bonnie Smith Whitehouse is an English professor at Belmont University in Nashville, but her class structure is decidedly different from most. A firm believer that the best ideas come when you least suspect them, Whitehouse has all of her students get walking before they get writing.

To honor her new book, Afoot and Lighthearted: A Journal for Mindful Walking, I chatted with Whitehouse about why strolls can be so valuable in an academic setting and beyond. The conversation meandered like a good long walk tends to. Along the way, she shared why bringing a journal on a hike is a good idea, how to move without a destination in mind in a results-driven world, and how to make any walk a more mindful and meaningful experience. It left me wanting to drop everyone, leave my phone behind, and seek out the nearest trail.

On walking through life a little differently.

I grew up in a family of nature lovers, and I credit my mom and dad with being the kind of parents who got us to love being outside. Our weekends were spent going on walks together in Tennessee and the mountains of North Carolina, so on a certain level, I associate walking with being with people I love. As I grew up, walking became part of my everyday life living in a city; I figured that I had to do it so often I should make it be meaningful—not just a way to get from A to B.

On creating a whole college course centered on walking.

At a certain point, I realized I felt better after I took a walk—my thoughts were clearer, and I had lots of ideas. So I became interested in experimenting with that as a professor. What I found is that throughout much of history, teaching and learning and writing and thinking didn't just happen in a classroom with rows. That's something we made up in the Industrial Era. Before that, great teachers like Plato and Aristotle conducted their teaching on walks. I started experimenting with that and teaching a class on how to use walking to generate ideas.

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On working movement into the curriculum.

For the most part, students are really excited and relieved; they're almost surprised that this is going to be their class. We'll leave the classroom to do things like go on a hard hike or walk through a labyrinth. I think they like the fact that their teachers truly care about their well-being and not just what they can produce. We give them strategies and tools they can take beyond this semester and use as practices in their daily lives.

I got so tired of people saying, "Oh you're an English professor, so you're going to correct my grammar" or "I'm not very good at MLA formatting." Who cares! That stuff is important, but it's not what I want my work to be all about.

On why pairing walking with writing is so powerful.

There's the physical stuff like walking aggressively for 20 minutes a day can help with Alzheimer's. It can reduce the risk of heart disease, depression, and cancer. What I'm interested in is combining that knowledge with research on expressive writing. People who keep journals on a regular basis tend to have stronger immune systems, tend to deal with post-traumatic stress in better ways, and tend to be happier and more confident. When you combine walking and journaling, it can really pack a punch for your well-being.

So with my students, I'll have them write a question in their journal before we start that hard hike. And when they feel like they need to stop and take a breath, I'll have them go back to their question and think about it before resuming.

On other ways to make your walks more mindful, in case you're not into journaling.

I'm a big believer in walking to commemorate something. For example, you can think, "On this walk, I'm going to walk in honor of the love I have for my child, or my friend who died, or a higher power—whomever." Use that walk to direct your energy toward that person or thing. Dedicating your mindfulness to someone you love or a hope that you have can be powerful.

And it can be wonderful to walk without a destination in mind. For so much of our lives we're using walking to get from one place to another, but just exploring and meandering—especially when you're with a dog or a child and can let them explore and take as long as they want—can be wonderful.

I also think combining a cardiovascular walk with a slower one can be awesome because you're doing great things for your heart but you're also getting into that meditative space. Get your heart rate up for 10 to 15 minutes, then wind down with a walking meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who has written extensively on meditation, says that the miracle is not to walk on water; the miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment and appreciate the beauty available now. I consider that to be the essence of what walking meditation is: You walk as if your feet are kissing the earth; as if whenever you connect with the earth it's this loving embrace. Focus on your footsteps and your breathing and that's it. Focus your attention on the miracle of the here and now.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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