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Walking and Running to Improve Your Writing

It will happen to you. Without a doubt. At some point, you’ll be told, “You need to move more.” Hopefully it won’t be coming from a doctor who has just diagnosed you with diabetes, gout, high blood pressure, or worse. But if you’re anything like me, that’s probably how it’ll happen. We only consider change when the pain is too much to bear.

For years, I knew I needed to move more. Even before I went into business for myself, I spent too many hours behind a keyboard and a screen. Sitting truly is the new smoking.

Fortunately, you have many options. You can join a dance studio, a gym, a yoga studio, buy a networked exercise bike, etc. But I’m a minimalist. I like to keep my life as simple as possible. There’s nothing wrong with getting movement in artificial environments, but they complicate matters. Recurring fees, driving to the location before the workout, driving home. And don’t forget (introverts), there’s also dealing with… people.

And now, more than ever, you might want to consider working out somewhere where other people are not laughing, yelling, spitting, or sweating.

THE BIKE DIDN’T WORK FOR ME

Years ago, I purchased an “expensive” bike and I still enjoy riding it, but bicycling has limitations. For one, you need a bike. Secondly, you have to clean and maintain said bike. And if you live anywhere but San Diego, you won’t be able to ride your bike for some portion of the year either because it’s too hot or too cold.

Your mileage may vary (pun intended), but I only have so many minutes on a bike seat before my nether regions start to tingle and not in that, “Hey, is that Cindy Crawford?” kinda way.

I’ve considered swimming a number of times, but I’ve never been able to get myself into the habit. Like the gym, I’ve got to be a member and I’ve got to drive to the pool. I have hair. Long hair. That’s kind of a pain. And don’t forget that unfortunately, other people will swim and have swum in that pool. Including toddlers. Wearing (or not) diapers. In theory, swimming sounds awesome, but I can’t convince myself to do it.

As humans, there is really only one variety of movement that we’ve been doing for hundreds of thousands of years—the chicken dance. And walking upright.

LEARN TO WALK BEFORE YOU RUN

We have two speeds. Walking and, “Oh, shit! A bear.” Also called running. For the past 3 months, I’ve been solely focused on these two methods of motion to keep me moving.

The physical and mental benefits of a walking and/or running regimen are unsurpassed by any “smart” machine sitting in a smelly gym. More on that later.

It didn’t take me long to experience the health benefits of walking and running, beyond what I intellectually knew they were doing for me.

Air. Depending on where you live, the quality will vary, but I will always opt for the natural wind on my face instead of the stale, forced air from a heating or air conditioning unit. I understand that we need furnaces to survive winter in the North and air conditioners to survive summer in the South. But those controlled environments are not ideal for a workout.

Although it might not seem like an advantage at first, moving through the sun, rain, snow, or sleet is not just for your mail carriers. Weathering, the uh, weather helps your body to stay in tune with the rhythms of the world. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves that we’re not, we are animals and our bodies need a connection to our natural environment.

Let’s walk before we run. Literally.

GO FOR A LONG WALK

You’ve heard about all of the benefits of walking—better physical health, mental clarity, emotional stability. But the findings from a recent article on ScienceDaily.com called, “How Walking Benefits the Brain,” might surprise you.

“Researchers at New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU) found that the foot’s impact during walking sends pressure waves through the arteries that significantly modify and can increase the supply of blood to the brain.”

It might not sound like it, but blood to the brain is a good thing.

“Until recently, the blood supply to the brain (cerebral blood flow or CBF) was thought to be involuntarily regulated by the body and relatively unaffected by changes in the blood pressure caused by exercise or exertion. The NMHU research team and others previously found that the foot’s impact during running (4-5 G-forces) caused significant impact-related retrograde (backward-flowing) waves through the arteries that sync with the heart rate and stride rate to dynamically regulate blood circulation to the brain.”

And it applies to walking as well as running.

“In the current study, the research team used non-invasive ultrasound to measure internal carotid artery blood velocity waves and arterial diameters to calculate hemispheric CBF to both sides of the brain of 12 healthy young adults during standing upright rest and steady walking (1 meter/second). The researchers found that though there is lighter foot impact associated with walking compared with running, walking still produces larger pressure waves in the body that significantly increase blood flow to the brain. While the effects of walking on CBF were less dramatic than those caused by running, they were greater than the effects seen during cycling, which involves no foot impact at all.”

Sorry, swimmers.

“New data now strongly suggest that brain blood flow is very dynamic and depends directly on cyclic aortic pressures that interact with retrograde pressure pulses from foot impacts. There is a continuum of hemodynamic effects on human brain blood flow within pedaling, walking and running. Speculatively, these activities may optimize brain perfusion, function, and overall sense of wellbeing during exercise.”

So those steps are pumping blood up into your brain as you walk. Who knew?

But not all walking serves the same purpose. Let’s take a look at the different reasons you’d put one foot in front of the other.

FLAVORS OF WALKING

The most obvious reason that people exercise by walking is to increase heart rate and general, overall cardiovascular health. If you can hold a casual conversation while walking, you’re probably not doing yourself much good. Even extremely obese people can walk. Don’t get me wrong—strolling along is better than sitting, but not much. To benefit from the activity, you need to get your heart rate up and your lungs working hard.

You can accomplish this while speed-walking around a track (boring) or around your neighborhood (fun). Here’s how you do it: One foot. Then the other. Repeat. You don’t need fancy shoes or special shirts. Not like those bicyclists and their way-too-tight-and-visible shorts. Just get out there and walk but do it briskly instead of casually.

Hiking is also an excellent way to get the heart rate up and the lungs working. Whether you’re walking asphalt trails in an urban park or climbing switchbacks on a mountain trail, hiking is great exercise.

Sometimes, you don’t care about the workout. Sometimes, the walk can be a way to get closer to the people you love.

My wife and I walk our neighborhood every evening, privately making fun of our neighbors’ yard ornaments or house decorations. Just kidding. Mostly. We talk and laugh, although we try not to point if we think the people might be home. We’re not “working out.” Instead, we’re enjoying each other’s company. A walk doesn’t always have to be grueling.

As a career author, I also use walks as weapons—to slay writer’s block or general writing ennui.

When necessary, I schedule two types of “story walks.” You can certainly combine these ideas, but I like to hit the pavement with a specific problem to solve.

The first story-walk type is idea generation. A few years ago, I came up with the premise and high concept for the BARREN trilogy on a series of early-morning walks. The crisp October air and fragrant leaves contributed to the ideas and that’s not something you can get walking around an indoor track or in a mall.

The second story-walk type is useful for solving plot problems. You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve put the alcoholic cop who’s 13 days from retirement into a locked basement with an overambitious, reckless rookie. Hilarity will ensue, provided you can find a way to get them out. Chances are, you’ll come up with that solution on a plot-problem walk.

I also enjoy productivity walks. These tend to focus more on my business than my craft. I might have a product launch coming up or a podcast episode that I’m excited about. When I take these ideas with me on a walk, I almost always develop even more interesting ideas.

Trying to think of some categories for your new book? Take a walk. Can’t exactly nail that book blurb? Take a walk. Need help designing a book cover? Hire a book cover designer. And THEN go for a walk before you send her the design brief.

It’s important to mention that on all of the walks I’ve described thus far, I do not wear earbuds or listen to anything. If my wife is having a particularly bad day, I’ll consider tuning her out with some ‘80s’ heavy metal, but that never ends well for me.

But if you’re looking to simply be entertained while you walk, it’s never been easier to do.

When I’m in the mood, I’ll fire up the VLC Media Player on my phone and listen to one of the CDs,  purchased years ago, that I’ve since ripped to mp3. And if all of what I just said makes no sense to you, you can also tap Spotify.

Similarly, listening to podcasts while walking can be both educational and entertaining. I can listen at 3X now after slowly bumping up my player’s speed over the years. You can’t imagine how many more episodes you can listen to at 3X speed. Well, maybe you can. Like three times as many.

Finally, there’s one type of walk that I’m convinced that I’m the only one doing it—practicing my pattern recognition.

As a storyteller, identifying patterns is crucial. And if you read my previous posts, you also know that the essence of learning in general is pattern recognition. Therefore, walking the same route on multiple days will help to sharpen your pattern recognition capabilities.

For the past four weeks, every time I turn off Main Street to 15th Avenue at approximately 6:53 a.m., I hear (and see) what I can only assume is the same red-headed woodpecker. He does seven fast pecks, pauses for three seconds, followed by seven more fast pecks. I don’t know. Maybe all woodpeckers peck this way, but it’s a pattern I’ve recognized.

I’ll do this with as many observations as I can make such as, how many days since this guy cut his grass? Or, how long has this garbage pail been sitting on the sidewalk? Or, when will animal control come and scrape this flattened raccoon off the street?

Get creative and you’ll be shocked at how many patterns you can detect. By doing so, you’re improving your power of observation, which is one of the most important and fundamental skills of any writer.

If I wasn’t afraid of getting sued, this is where I’d make a joke about walking all over you in my boots.

So now that you’ve seen the benefits of walking, let’s jog on over to our next topic. Running.

RUN TO THE HILLS

I’m currently running about 5.9 miles in 55 minutes. I need to listen to music while I run to distract myself from thinking about the fact that I’m running and there isn’t a bear behind me. But it doesn’t take long before even the music fades and I find myself in a meditative state.

A recent post in The Guardian explored the idea of a running meditation.

“Raichlen’s was a preliminary study, but if corroborated in the future, it will lend fresh weight to the idea that running can be a form of moving mindfulness meditation. Brain scans show that meditation and running can have a somewhat similar effect on the brain; simultaneously engaging executive functions and turning down the chatter of the default mode network. Again, this seems intuitively right: in the midst of a run, you are likely to be immersed in the present moment, tuned into your bodily state, and conscious of your breath. These are all key aims of mindfulness-based practices. Lacing up your trainers and going for a run could, therefore, be a way to reap some of the psychological benefits of mindfulness.”

It’s difficult to explain and probably has to be felt. Almost every time I go for a long run (more than 40 minutes), I find myself slipping into a “moving mindfulness meditation.” Little aches and pains that tried to convince me to stay on the couch have faded away and even the music blends into a form of white noise. My brain chatter quiets, and I can hear the rhythm of my breathing or the slapping of my feet on the pavement.

I silently meditate every morning before I exercise and it’s not exactly the same when I run, but I can feel the same benefits. When I finish my run, I’m almost always mentally calmer, refreshed, and relaxed.

Dude. Wanna get high? Runner’s high, that is. You may have heard about it, but what is it and how does it work?

An article on the Johns Hopkins website titled, “The Truth Behind ‘Runner’s High’ and Other Mental Benefits of Running,” gets into the neuroscience of the runner’s high.

“When you start out on your run, your body goes through a transition: Your breathing may become heavy, and you might notice your pulse quicken as the heart pumps harder to move oxygenated blood to your muscles and brain.”

Like squeezing a popsicle of blood up your legs and into your brain. Yum!

“As you hit your stride, your body releases hormones called endorphins. Popular culture identifies these as the chemicals behind ‘runner’s high,’ a short-lasting, deeply euphoric state following intense exercise.”

Some assume that the endorphins create the runner’s high, but research shows that’s probably not the case.

“And though endorphins help prevent muscles from feeling pain, it is unlikely that endorphins in the blood contribute to a euphoric feeling, or any mood change at all. Research shows that endorphins do not pass the blood-brain barrier. That relaxed post-run feeling may instead be due to endocannabinoids — biochemical substances similar to cannabis but naturally produced by the body.”

Running is way cheaper than smoking pot.

The mental benefits of running are just as impressive as the physical ones.

“By making running or jogging (or any aerobic exercise) a regular part of your routine, you stand to earn more than just physical gains over time. ‘Voluntary exercise is the single best thing one can do to slow the cognitive decline that accompanies normal aging,’ says Linden.”

Walking versus running. Which one should you choose? How about both!

THE COMBO PLATTER

I’m training for a marathon, so my workout regimen is constantly changing. But as of the writing of this article, I’m currently running for 55 minutes (almost 6 miles) on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday while walking briskly for 30 minutes (2 miles) on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. I do not walk or run on Sundays. I start those workouts by 6 a.m. In the evenings, I’ll walk another 2 miles with my wife, but it’s more of a leisurely stroll when we get a chance to talk about our day.

The point is that you don’t have to choose, and you can individualize your activity to suit your lifestyle. When I first left the gym to work out at home, I began by walking 30 minutes each morning. Then, I started what I call the “5/9 Technique.” With a timer on my phone, I would run for 1 minute at the 5- and 9-minute marks (5:00, 9:00, 15:00, 19:00, 25:00, 29:00), creating six bursts of running inside of my 30-minute walk. Gradually, I’d extend the minutes of running until I was able to run for 30 minutes and then, I extended my total time by 5 minutes per week.

Running is not easy if you start by running multiple miles or working through pain. I had to stop all walking and running for many weeks because I increased my running frequency too quickly and ended up with runner’s knee. And I can honestly say, I could not even stand up for days with runner’s knee. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. If you feel pain, stop running immediately.

Because I walk and run, I can pick which activity suits what I want to accomplish at that time. For me, walking is more mental. I tend to walk when I’m trying to think through plot issues, develop a new business idea, prepare for a podcast episode, etc. Running is more meditative. If I need to clear my head or want a mental reset, running helps me do that.

Finally, I think it’s important to occasionally reframe your perspective. Whether you’re walking or running, familiarity can turn into monotony. I’m lucky to live in an older inner-ring suburb of Cleveland with tree-lined streets and sidewalks. I can walk or run in just about any direction and not see the same streets for 7 or 8 days if I rotate my route.

If you have only one possible route or are running on a track, reverse your route. Something as simple as going in the other direction will stimulate your brain. If you live in a neighborhood like mine, resist the temptation to do what you’ve always done. Walk different streets and find ones you haven’t been on yet, such as dead ends or cul-de-sacs. If it’s more rural where you live, try different trails or different starting points along your known trails.

I know that my mental faculties are inextricably connected to my physical activity. A light stroll is movement and better than none, but don’t be afraid to turn up the intensity or frequency of those walks. And if your health permits it, try running even for just a minute or two. You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel.

Dictating my novel while running? I’d end up running into the back end of a pickup filled with manure. But imagine how many words I could bank if I dictated while running a marathon…

DISCLAIMER:

By reading this essay, you agree not to use the information in it as medical advice to treat any medical condition in either yourself or others. Consult your own physician for any medical issues that you may be having. Common sense, people.

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