“Walking is man’s best medicine.” Hippocrates
“If there is a panacea in medicine it is walking” Norman Doidge
If you place an exercise wheel in a rat’s cage, it will use it. They naturally want to move. A rat that uses a wheel is much more mentally and physically healthy than a rat caged without one. It is also more resilient to stress and will live longer. I regularly have to remind myself that I too have a wheel in my cage, and it is the block I live on. Merely walking around your block a few times each day can vastly improve your mental and physical health.
Walking keeps your respiratory and cardiovascular systems strong by providing them with a light challenge. However, for a rat to attain health benefits, its use of a wheel must be voluntary. If the rat feels forced, the exercise becomes stressful, and many of the benefits disappear. So, when I walk I don’t hurry, I have no time limit, and no particular destination to reach. For me, the endorphins from a voluntary 15-minute walk make me feel like I am no longer in a cage. Those from a 30-minute walk turn a so-so day into a splendid one.
Modern-day hunter-gatherers average around 19 miles of walking and trotting every day. Like all mammals, we are designed to move. Some doctors urge patients to take 10,000 steps daily, which equates to about five miles and takes about an hour and a half. In my opinion, this is excessive for many people, especially those who do not walk regularly. They quickly develop back, knee, and ankle pain at this rate. Instead, shoot for a healthy fraction of this that is comfortable for you. You might start somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 steps.
While mortality rates improve progressively with the number of steps taken daily,1 this positive effect levels off after approximately 6,000 steps (three miles) per day. This demonstrates that you certainly don’t need to walk a full 10,000 steps each day to reap the benefits. You might want to use your car or a GPS to measure the distance around your block. Once you have that distance in miles, multiply it by 2,000 (there are around 2,000 steps in a mile) to find out how many steps it takes to circle your block and then how many laps you should shoot for to reach your desired total distance. Wherever you choose to walk, you should find that after a few thousand steps you feel your bracing patterns and emotional tensions begin to wash away.
At the end of Chapter 21, we will discuss the panoply of health benefits from regular exercise in more detail. The remainder of this chapter will discuss how to get the most out of your walks. It will coach you to walk assertively, with impeccable posture, while employing anti-rigidity, and taking appropriate breaks and counterposes. Basically, it details how you can turn your walks into time spent putting Program Peace into practice.
Use Good Posture While Walking in Public
Whenever we encounter someone, the first impulse is to query: “friend or foe?” Unconscious circuits in the brain work to decide: “Are they going to attack me?” “Are they easily provoked?” “Are they analyzing me, waiting for me to submit before they decide whether to be hostile?” Then we try to determine if they did have ill intentions, would they have the power to enact them? In other words, we size them up to see which one of us would prevail in a physical altercation. Often regardless of whether we think we could win, we let our posture cave in. Don’t do any of these things. The inclination to size up others turns our world into a hostile place from the inside out. However, we do want to be aware of how others size us up.
Psychologists, criminologists, and law enforcement personnel agree that walking like a victim increases the likelihood of being mugged or assaulted. They recommend that we “walk with a purpose.” Studies have shown that criminals can identify people with histories of victimization by their gait.2 They walk like an easy target: asynchronously, timidly, with short strides. Depressed people also have a characteristic way of walking. They exhibit reductions in walking speed, stride length, vertical head movement, and arm movement at the shoulder and elbow.3 When you walk, do the exact opposite.
People who walk like despondent prey are advertising their victimization so others can see that they don’t want to compete. They are communicating that they will give in to a bully. But the same self-handicapping that will repel a competitor will attract a predator. There is a fundamental tradeoff to submissive posture, and that is being ripe for predation. This is why the best way to carry yourself is to use the optimal postures described in the preceding chapters, without a hint of either competitiveness or vulnerability.
Your neck should be straight, with your chin tucked in toward your throat. Your shoulders should be pressed down and back. Your eyes should be wide and looking upward. Your face, and your entire body should be relaxed. You should be breathing smooth, slow, long, deep breaths through your nose. This combination of comfort and confidence should help you see the strangers you encounter on your walks as compatriots and allies. A zygomatic smile and a cordial salute can help them see you in the same way.
Walk spryly with nonchalant control and balance. Expand yourself. In becoming more expansive channel a peacock fanning its tail feathers, a cat galloping sideways, or a baboon romping through foliage. Feel the animal strength in your body. Extend your neck and roll your shoulders back so that you can openly display your chest. This gives a signal to others that you are not afraid of being attacked. Hands placed near the hips show readiness for action, hands behind the back signify confidence.4 Head erect and neck retracted, demonstrate the posture of a military general, an elite athlete, or royalty. Think imperial, dignified…regal. Visualize yourself emanating gravitas and a commanding presence. Good posture leads others to assume that you must have much to be confident about, and they will accept what you project.
Hunter-gatherers have been documented to steal meat from lions by merely walking up to them and taking it. How, you ask? They walk with purpose. They wait until a lion kills a wildebeest. Then as few as three humans will approach a pride of as many as one dozen hungry beasts. They walk directly toward the lions from a distance without a hint of hesitation. One by one, the lions buy into the illusion, grow wary, and flee the site. Walking while projecting assertion, intention, and mettle is incredibly powerful and acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As You Walk, Own the Space Around You
It is common to see a monkey feeding peacefully in one spot but then depart suddenly when approached by another monkey who promptly claims the spot. Behavioral biologists have a word for when one animal makes another animal move. It is called “displacement.” It happens when a subordinate animal uses its knowledge of the hierarchy to determine that a confrontation should be avoided. It allows the other animal to evict it from the physical space it was occupying. Preferred spaces can involve food, like a prime spot of grass. They can involve mates, like a spot closer to a fertile female. Sometimes animals are forced to move from unremarkable spaces, where they happen to be. Don’t allow anyone to evict you from where you happen to be.
This is not a call to be impolite. Be thoughtful when passing people, share space, open doors, move over to accommodate couples or to make room for children, families, or the elderly. However, don’t displace yourself to appease an imposing person any more than you would for someone who wasn’t. Hold your ground and expect them to move out of the way as much as you do. When walking, own your immediate space as well as your entire forward trajectory through space. It may feel like you are flouting social customs, but remember that you are not doing anything illegal. You are doing invaluable internal work increasing the boundaries of your comfort zone. When you inevitably bump into someone, be firm but amiable about it.
Many people have told me that my cat is the calmest they have ever seen. This may be because I am calm around him, I treat him like a friend, and I pet him firmly, fluidly, and slowly. But I think the main reason for his composure is that I respect his space. I make an effort not to step over him or walk so close to him that he fears being trampled. I give him authority over his immediate area, which provides him a shield of certainty and control. Take this shield for yourself, wherever you go. Feel complete ownership of the space around you. Wherever you are is your territory because you are in it.
Walk with Exaggerated Posture
When I first went out on long walks exaggerating my posture and standing tall, I could tell that other pedestrians questioned my motives, looking suspicious or even offended. Some people seemed incensed at seeing me standing vertically and looking upwards. My posture looked fake because I was forcing myself to stand straight without the healthy postural tone that should accompany it. Ironically, the best way to develop this musculature is to fake it, standing straighter and taller than our body is accustomed. Once the postural muscles strengthen, standing erect will look genuine, and people will not question it.
Please don’t take it overboard. Other pedestrians may be provoked if they can tell that some of your nonverbals are consistent with overcompensation. They may assume that you are putting on a ruse and feel compelled to put you back in your place. You want to avoid this, so be measured and conservative around others as you gradually transform your victim walk into a victor walk. This is also why, at first, I chose to walk and stretch in uncrowded, outdoor places either at dusk or after dark. Find a safe, well-lit park or boulevard where you still have the bit of privacy you need to really swagger. Strut creatively, channeling the gamut of your favorite personality types.
You can work on the timing of your steps by stepping to music. It is as easy as ensuring that your foot strikes the ground on every beat. Try stomping around your block with headphones on. If you let nothing but the drums determine the cadence of your footfall you will learn to walk unhesitatingly. Within two hour of cumulative practice your rhythmic flow will be masterful. You can incorporate a two-step, a spin or turn, and a cross-step (where you are walking sideways and one foot crosses over the other).
Optimal posture only looks natural if it is clear that a person has spent a lot of time there and has interacted with ordinary loads and forces from that position. To get your optimal posture looking authentic, spend time creating these loads and forces using anti-rigidity.
Perform Anti-rigidity Exercises While Walking
The majority of this book’s exercises can be performed while walking, but the following exercises are specifically for your walks.
Many people rarely lift their arms above their head because they are afraid it will make others uncomfortable. This complete disuse results in muscle dormancy and neglect of entire sections of the cervical and thoracic spine. The first part of Exercise 18.2 below involves extending the arms directly above the head with the neck retracted. If you do this while employing the anti-rigidity method from Chapter 14 for three cumulative hours, you will find that your cervical spine is completely resituated. You will also invalidate any fears or reservations about lifting your arms in public. The following exercises offer similar postures that you can employ anti-rigidity within. You might take light weights (e.g., one to five pounds) with you to accentuate the forces at play.
Illustration 18.1: Positions for upper-body anti-rigidity while walking.
Refresh Your Muscles While Walking
Walking requires only a very narrow range of spinal motion. The tension created by walking within this limited range can pull a misaligned spine even further out of alignment. This is why the longer you walk, the more you tend to ache. Simply squatting momentarily, holding a static lunge, or reaching over to touch your toes can completely relieve this by pushing major muscles through their full range. This is why I highly recommend that you do each of these things after every half-mile that you cover.
When you need a break from walking: 1. Stop and crouch down into a low squat. 2. Straighten your back, and flex your ankles, knees, hips, and spine. 3. Then stand and place your fists on your lower back with your elbows at 90 degrees, pointed behind you. You can then bend backwards in this position pressing your fists into your mid and lower back for five to 15 seconds to achieve a full back extension.
Next, use a full back flexion as a counterpose. Slowly bend forward to touch your toes. To make this easier you can support your descent by placing your hands on your upper thighs, and sliding your hands over your knees, down the shins, and toward the feet. Stop for a moment in “forward fold,” and then raise up the way that you went in.
Illustration 18.2: Anti-rigidity poses to use while taking a break from walking.
To make these forward bends harder, you can cradle your head in your hands (as pictured below) and press it toward the ground to engage your neck extensors. This will intensify the active forces in your neck and lower back. For another variation, try this with your legs spread two to three feet apart, or try it with one leg two to three feet in front of the other. I think everyone should be doing 10 of these every day.
Illustration 18.3: Anti-rigidity routine for the neck and shoulders.
Bend Over Walking will Tap Into Your Lower Back Pain
There is one particular lumbar position that will reach into the core of your lower back frailty. Maintaining this position while walking will allow you to tap into it so that you can work out the kinks. To assume the position, bend over from the waist (not the hips), and enter lumbar kyphosis (shrimp back), where you curl your hips upwards and inwards toward your face. While you do this, try to keep your glutes contracted. Clasping your hands behind your back can help provide support and balance. Then keep this configuration and start walking, taking small, tempered steps. As long as you ensure that you remain in lumbar kyphosis, you will engage many dormant muscles anchored in the sacrum and ilium.
This will make you feel like a very old person because of the way you are hunched over and because of the intensely brittle feeling in your lower back as you plant each foot. For safety’s sake, this bent-over walking should be done very carefully and just a little at a time at first. As you rehab this configuration, you can become more ambitious by bending over further and funneling more power into each stride. It is risky because you can easily pull a muscle. However, if you are careful, it is a vigorous form of rehab that can help you reclaim the lumbar mobility of your early childhood and reinstitute an entire mode of locomotion.
Illustration 18.4: Anti-rigidity routine to engage dormant lower back muscles.
Experiment with walking using both extreme lumbar kyphosis and lordosis. This can also be done on a stair climber, treadmill, or elliptical machine at a low-speed setting. Carefully curl your lumbar spine either backward or forward while on the machine as if you were performing a “cow” or “cat” pose. As your legs move and your weight is redistributed, you will be tugging at various partially contracted muscles. Proceed slowly and carefully, breathing through the pinch you find during each cycle.
Keep Your Feet Straight and Vary the Way You Use Them to Walk
We take every step in almost the same repetitive manner with minimal movement variation at the foot, ankle, or knee. We do this despite the incredible potential for mobility contained within the thirty-two joints, fifty-six ligaments, and thirty-eight muscles of our feet. Unfortunately, many of these are largely immobile in most people. The best way to reengage the dormant muscles in your feet and legs is to spend a few minutes a day walking within various positions, as in the exercise below.
While walking your feet should face directly forward. My feet used to be dramatically turned out. I was able to fix this completely after only two weeks of walking a couple of minutes a day while concentrating mindfully to ensure that my feet remained straight. I think you may also be surprised by how just paying attention to it fixes this problem. To strengthen both tendencies, you can use 7 and 8 above, walking briefly with the toes turned out and then turning in. As when backbends are followed by forward bends, gently training the extremes will help the body find the ideal midline.
You might also consider getting orthotic insoles prescribed for your shoes. You can get a prescription from a podiatrist or get fitted at your local drug store. Insoles are commonly used to support feet that have been worn out of shape by a walking style that favors one of the above patterns to the exclusion of the others. Wear these arch-supporting inserts less than half the time. Again, you will strengthen and cross-train your feet by exposing them to both conditions.
Every step we take is supposed to be powered by a forceful gluteal contraction, but most of us have learned to walk without activating the glutes at all. Adding a gluteal contraction at the end of each step is known as glidewalking.5 To practice this, you want to take long strides with a straight back leg that thrusts you forward due to the extension occurring at the buttock. To ensure that this happens, place your hands inside your pants, just above your back pockets. Cover the top half of each of your glutes with your fingers. Walk so that you feel the top of each glute contract firmly with every step. After a few months of sporadically reminding yourself to train this, you will put your hand on your glute while walking and feel it ball up vigorously. Over time your glutes will become toned and brawny and will add stability and power to your stride.
The same goes for the calves: most people have engineered a firm calf contraction out of their step. Pushing off the ground with the calf muscles of the back leg will challenge and develop them. The heel should make contact with the ground first. Then you should roll forward across the length of the foot to the toes. As this happens, the ankle should pass through much of its full range of motion. The calf should be fully extended as you push the ground away with the ball of your foot. Even the toes should contribute to this push, contracting slightly at the end of each step to help propel you forward. When the toes and calf contract, the glute should contract at the same time.
Illustration 18.5: Depiction of glidewalking
Arm swing is another essential biomechanical component of efficient walking. People reduce arm swing to display subordination, but you should swing your arms blithely whenever you are walking. As you do it, ensure that your shoulders are pressed toward the floor. These elements of proper walking take time to develop, but once they are automatic, they will help you burn calories and build muscle.
Pay special attention to the way you kick your foot forward with each step. Rather than being smooth and graceful, it is likely a violent jerk. This is a major cause of knee pain. You can address it by consciously attending to the jarring motion and making an effort to transform it into a gentle, velvety one. Strolling very slowly helps build the coordination needed. As in tai chi, slow everything down and pay attention to the fluidity of each movement. You are going to look weird walking around your block in slow motion, instituting these exercises. Getting yourself to stop worrying about how others will perceive you will be an accomplishment in itself.
Your routines (e.g., walking) cannot be efficient unless their component subroutines (e.g., extending the ankle, knee, and hip) are optimal themselves. You might feel uncoordinated when you start to slow things down and focus on the individual parts of each action. That’s totally normal. You have thousands of steps to take every day, likely for the rest of your life, so you want to re-engineer them to be as efficient as possible. Relearn how to complete the smallest motor movements in ways that don’t use anxiety for propulsion. Instead…glide. This goes for writing, speaking, typing, opening a door, handing an object to someone, and everything else imaginable.
Conserve Your Momentum While Walking
Whenever you are walking, you should be taking full advantage of your body’s forward energy. Most people walk without conserving their momentum. They break the inertia they have going with each indecisive stride. Poorly timed foot falls eat up their speed, slow them down, and create a bumpy ride. Take some time to analyze how you lose momentum in your default walking pattern.
Each foot plant should not be a collision but rather a brief foothold to push off against. Rolling down your foot from heel to toes will help with this. Also, use the proprioceptive sensors throughout your knees and ankles to help you determine how much momentum from the last step can be reused in the next surefooted step. Placing your foot too far in front of the body, known as over-striding, is one of the most common mistakes people make when walking. It breaks up your glide. Under-striding is also common. So, pay careful attention to the fluidity created by stride length and try to optimize it. “
Don’t second guess a single step. Conserving your momentum will turn your stride into a buoyant saunter and override any hesitancies deriving from submissive signaling. Done right, you should feel like a freight train. Allay any worries that people will think that you are walking in an aggressive, angry way. It is not angry at all. It is merely efficient.
Don’t hobble. Coast. Set sail on your own momentum, and ride like the wind.
“Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.” — Thich Nhat Hanh (1926)
It is worth mentioning that there are many ways to multitask while walking. Walking with other people is a great way to bond. You can help each other to develop mutually assertive, out-of-doors, power-walking body language. Instead of taking your phone calls in bed or on the couch, take them as you parade around your neighborhood. A headset with a microphone or a Bluetooth earphone can make this easier. You can also turn your time walking into an opportunity for learning if you decide to listen to audiobooks using headphones. Additionally, you can use the act of walking to create a breathing metronome. For instance, I often inhale for five steps and then exhale for eight. Otherwise, walking can be an opportune time to take in nature, meditate, live in the moment, practice mindfulness, and create a new, improved persona.
Chapter Eighteen: Bullet Points
- Walking is highly health promoting.
- Maintain the five tenets of optimal posture while walking.
- Strut and swagger while you walk to build confidence.
- Walk with exaggerated, solider-like posture for two minutes until the muscles involved reach a healthy fatigue. Then allow the muscles at least a minute to rest completely before repeating.
- Perform upper-body anti-rigidity while you walk, by moving your arms, shoulders, and back through different, unfamiliar configurations.
- Walking regularly with your hands in the air and the neck retracted will help put your cervical and thoracic spine into optimal configuration.
- When you walk for prolonged periods take breaks to allow your muscles to regenerate.
- When you break from walking, refresh your muscles by squatting, lunging, and touching your toes. This will bring fresh blood to spinal sections that have become stale.
- Practice glidewalking where the glute, calf, and toes of the back leg are fully deployed with every step.
- Walk with both feet pointing straight ahead.
- Capture the remaining momentum from each stride so that it can be applied to the next.
- Lee, I. M., Shiroma, E. J., & Kamada, M. (2019). Association of step volume and intensity with all-cause mortality in older women. JAMA Internal Medicine, 179(8), 1105–1112.
- Ritchiea, M. B., Blais, J., Forth, A. (2019). “Evil” intentions: Examining the relationship between the Dark Tetrad and victim selection based on nonverbal gait cues. Personality and Individual Differences, 138(1), 126–132.
- Michalak, J., Troje, N. F., Fischer, J., Vollmar, P., Heidenreich, T., & Schulte, D. (2009). Embodiment of sadness and depression: Gait patterns associated with dysphoric mood. Psychosomatic Medicine, 71(5), 580–587.
- Van Edwards, V. (2017). Captivate: The science of succeeding with people. Penguin Random House.
- Gokhale, E. (2008). 8 Steps to a pain-free back. Pendo Press.