woman pausing during walking meditation

The zero dollar way to meditate for people who can’t sit still

There’s just something about meditation that makes some people antsy, myself included. You can be a perfectly calm person, but your foot starts tapping the second you hit the meditation mat. Now you’re getting frustrated. You’ve tried classes and apps and YouTube videos of guided meditation, but the urge to get up and flee never leaves. Before you give up on the whole meditation thing entirely, try one last thing: walking meditation.

People practiced at meditation can make you feel bad for not being able to sit still. It’s not that they try to, it’s that they make it look so easy. It looks beyond simple to sit still and relax, so you leave feeling like a failure when you can’t. But this antsy, must-move feeling is normal. It’s a completely natural reaction to sitting alone with your thoughts.

Why meditation makes some people antsy

Obviously, there are people who just can’t sit still under any circumstance. I’m not one of those people. I finally figured out that meditation made me fidget because of what it asks you to do. Sitting alone with my thoughts, which are mostly worries, makes me uncomfortable. Since there’s no distraction during meditation, my body tries to create one by moving around.

We spend our lives largely distracted from what makes us uncomfortable. We work a vast majority of the day, and can check to-do list boxes to avoid the more anxiety-inducing tasks. Music is a welcome distraction on the way home, maybe a book if you commute in a city. Once you’re home TV entertains us and makes us forget about our gnawing work worries. Emotional eating can even be a distraction from your biggest fears and strongest feelings.

Walking meditation is a compromise that might help your practice. You’re still meditating, and reaping the health benefits, but there’s an outlet for that nervous energy. But first, why should you even stick with it? Wouldn’t it be easier to just skip meditation entirely? Sure, but here’s why you shouldn’t.

Yes, you should try to meditate anyway

Science is pretty clear about meditation being good for us. You can credit a lot of the findings about meditation practice to the Shamatha Project. This extensive investigation run out of University of California, Davis, explored the cognitive, psychological and biological effects of meditation. Among their findings was meditation’s ability to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase your longevity by boosting levels of telomerase, which keeps your body’s cells healthy.

Better stress management and a longer, healthier life sound pretty good, even if you don’t enjoy meditation. But the clincher might just be how long you carry these health benefits with you. A follow-up on these benefits, specifically the increased ability to focus, shows they stick with you even seven years later.

walking meditation if you're antsy
Photo: iStock

The findings proving meditation’s value just keep rolling in, too. Most recently, researchers from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and University of North Texas found a way to measure meditation’s stress-relieving effect. They looked at heart rate variability (HRV) to determine how much stress could be reduced. Researchers developed a technique that compared changes in HRV to brain activity to put numbers on the effects of meditation. Using this scale, they found the practice had a notable effect on stress levels as shown through changes in HRV.

Let’s face it, we could all be better at stress management. Life isn’t getting any easier, and responsibilities at work are only increasing with every passing year. But the studies never said you had to sit still to reap the rewards of this practice, and that’s where walking meditation comes in.

Try walking meditation before throwing in the towel

Although there are more formal practices of walking meditation, it can be as simple as practicing mindfulness while going for a walk. It’s simple, but it’s not easy, especially for city dwellers. The point is to move with awareness and intention. You should feel how your muscles move, how your foot touches the ground. It will take practice, but the movement has been an outlet for the anxiousness sitting meditation causes for me.

You’ll keep finding that you speed up without meaning to. That’s OK. Every time you notice it happening, consciously slow yourself down. You should be going for a leisurely stroll, not trying to get anywhere. If focusing on movement feels unnatural to you, you can reap the rewards of walking meditation by focusing on your breathing.

Just drawing awareness to your breathing can sharpen your focus over time, a new study out of Trinity College in Dublin suggests. Breath-focused meditation increases levels of a chemical messenger in the brain called noradrenaline, which helps you form mental connections. But it’s a Goldilocks chemical. You need just the right amount to properly form new mental connections. When you’re stressed, you create too much and your ability to focus drops. But our levels fluctuate as we breathe: they rise slightly as we inhale, and decrease as we exhale.

Simply put, that means your attention is directly connected to your breathing. It also means you can regulate this chemical, and optimize your ability to focus, by controlling your breathing. Luckily for you, oh antsy one, this can be done when you’re walking.

The dirt on walking meditation

Before you give up on meditation, try channeling your anxious energy into walking meditation. The walking gives you an outlet for the discomfort that can come from sitting alone with your thoughts, and you’ll still get the rewards. We’re talking serious health benefits like increased ability to focus, lower levels of cortisol, and boosted longevity. So work with your anxious energy if you just can’t sit still for traditional meditation instead of dumping the practice for good. Drop me a comment and let me know how it works for you.

Eli DeFaria


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