Who knew that the secret to great health and happiness lies right at our feet?

While trying to come to grips with the changes my body, mind, and life were going through after turning 50, I came across a life-changing article in the Wall Street Journal about Jeff Galloway, the Olympian and marathoner who developed the Run-Walk-Run program used by hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

The article was published the day after the NYC Marathon, so it’s focus was on how anyone can train and run in a Marathon using Jeff’s program.  At that time, I was more interested in losing the 15 post-menopausal pounds I had packed on, and looking for ways to incorporate exercise and fitness into my life without spending a lot of money or time in the process.

I knew I had to do something to get my health, weight and stress level back on track, but run? I had never willingly run in my life, except during the dreaded annual Field Day at P.S. 203!

Worse, I hadn’t done any kind of sustained exercise since having children, and it was definitely showing. A few days later, I decided to contact Jeff to talk about his program. When we spoke, he insisted that anyone who could walk could run, regardless of age or fitness level, just by following his simple method. In fact, people all around the world use the program to train for marathons, often improving their race time. At least willing to try, I made a commitment that day, and bought my first pair of running shoes.

Galloway’s Run-Walk-Run program, which has been followed by hundreds of thousands of runners of all ages and abilities since 1978, and has a 98 percent marathon-completion success rate, lets you alternate between gentle running with regular walk breaks — and plenty of them. I’m sure there are many running purists who snicker at the idea of taking walk breaks, but based on Jeff’s research and experience, they’ll be the ones looking for the orthopedic surgeons.

Like many people over 50, I was worried about running, because I had heard that running, or even strenuous walking, can hurt our joints. Research shows, however, that it won’t, if done right. After 30 years of following his own program, Jeff has never had an injury. The reason is simple: it calls for slow, gentle running, with scheduled walk breaks. Distance, not speed, is the goal. It’s easy on the joints, and yet gives a high performance cardio work out.

Running, at any age, offers so many positive benefits: reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and dementia. Contrary to what many people believe, running does not predispose joints to arthritis. In fact, studies show that walking and running can help even chronic health problems. You can do it anywhere, anytime, and it’s free.

A few months into Jeff’s program, I was hooked: happily running three days a week (with our rescued dog, Gunther, at my side), burning calories, losing weight, and having a lot more energy. On the non-running days, I walk for 30 or more minutes, or climb up and down my building’s staircase a few times, so every day my body is given a reason to move. No gym, no trainer, no cost.

But something else started to happen. Being a creature of habit, I always take the same path through Central Park, in the same direction, playing the same Tom Petty music on my iPhone, instinctively knowing exactly when I should take my 30 or 60 second walk breaks. I found myself “running on autopilot.” While always aware of my surroundings to ensure that I was safe (cars, bikers and other runners are often nearby), there was a subtle change taking place: I became more focused, concentrating on my breathing, letting stress and tension melt away. I no longer cared how fast I was going, or how many people passed me. My body and mind worked in unison, creating a steady, rhythmic pace. A deep feeling of wellbeing flooded over me.

I had moved into a state of meditative running.

New studies are always coming out which underscore meditation’s power to help us concentrate, focus, be more aware, calm, and relaxed, offering health benefits such as lowering blood pressure, among other things. But, meditation wasn’t anything I had deliberately or intentionally experienced before, nor had I set out to do it while running. Intrigued, I did some research about mindful meditation, and came to the conclusion that each time I ran, I was slipping into a state of meditative running, which was having the same positive impact on my health and life had I been sitting on a yoga mat for an hour every day.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

Meditation is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine. Meditation produces a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. This process results in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.

And a recent report on sciencedaily.com stated:

Participating in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

By combining the disciplines of meditation with those of running, I discovered a powerful key to happiness and health that anyone—at any age—can embrace. Some of the benefits of meditative running that I experienced over the last few years include:

  • Greater focus
  • Less stress
  • Better moods
  • A sense of mindfulness
  • Deeper connection to myself
  • Deeper connection to nature
  • Patience
  • Learning to breathe
  • Problem-solving
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Clear thinking
  • Greater happiness

The physical benefits have been more obvious:

  • Weight loss
  • Increased physical stamina
  • Lower body strength
  • Improved health checks
  • Better sleep

My clearest thinking happens while I’m in a state of meditative running. A year into it, I developed the concept for my first book, The Best of Everything After 50 (in which I discuss the Run-Walk-Run program in greater detail), and many of my articles are thought through and very often written (in my head) while I run. If there is a conflict in my life, or a problem that needs solving, invariably the answers become clear during those times.

This year, I am running in the NYC Marathon to celebrate my 55th birthday (some details are below). The idea came to me one day when I was out for a run. My body and mind kicked into a perfect meditative rhythm, and at that moment, I had no doubt that I could not only handle the physical endurance that would be required to train and complete a marathon . . . but I would embrace it as a symbol of my new-found physical and mental power.

Haruki Murakami describes with beautiful candor and eloquence how long-distance running is now an integral part of him. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running he wrote:

Long-distance running (more or less, for better or worse) has molded me into the person I am today, and I’m hoping it will remain a part of my life for as long as possible. I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together.

That’s my plan, too.

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