The Benefits of Slowing Down
I never realized quite how fast my life moved until I went on vacation last year and slammed on the brakes. Instead of taking one of our usual family sightseeing trips, where we spend our days checking landmarks off lists, we rented a cabin tucked deep in the Adirondack woods. For one blissful week my days, usually an overscheduled blur of work, chores, and ringing gadgets, involved not much more than listening to the birds chirp and smelling the grass. And a strange thing began to happen as one delightfully languid moment passed into the next -- I started to feel as if I were waking up. I felt engaged, present, and energized in ways I'd forgotten I could be. Back at home I've tried to recapture some of that focus by reprogramming my speed-addict habits and have been amazed to find that I'm actually more productive and less stressed out because of it.
The idea that a more relaxed approach to life can be good for you isn't just my personal post-vacation epiphany: It's actually the basis of a new movement that encourages us all to put on the brakes a bit more. The thinking? Finding a slower rhythm can improve just about every part of your life and your health.
Most of the time you walk with a destination in mind and the urge to get there as fast as possible. You hurry, head down, eyes anxiously scanning the phone for messages, fingers frantically typing a text, completely oblivious to your surroundings. But walking slowly...ambling...strolling...whether you're going somewhere or nowhere in particular is a whole different experience. Slow walking -- no iPods or cell phones allowed -- isn't a workout; it's an exercise only in observation, a way to look at the places and people around you as a small child might, with curiosity and wonder.
"Walking engages your visual senses, allowing you to look at things and really see them," says Willard Spiegelman, author of Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness. "The pleasure of walking the same route each day is that you register subtle changes -- the way the leaves turn, fall, bud again; how a building is demolished, then rebuilt. When you walk slowly you also go over the day, make lists, think what you might have said to someone, what you might still say. It composes and clears your mind."
Does it matter where you take these soothing strolls? Spiegelman says he favors opposite extremes: busy city streets pulsing with life or quiet lanes where natural beauty abounds. But the truth is, slow walking can work its magic anywhere. "If there doesn't seem to be much to look at, look harder," he says. "Walking opens you up to the world -- and to yourself."
Having a conversation isn't the same as having a talk. Talk involves exchanging specific information, instructions, explanations -- and the faster it gets to the point, the better. "Conversation has a different purpose," says essayist Stephen Miller, author of Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. "It's not about what somebody wants done or needs to know. It doesn't have to be direct -- it can circle around, digress. The point is for two people to connect."
We've all experienced the joy of slow conversation -- the marathon coffee klatch with a friend we've known since childhood, the getting-to-know-you whispers of early love. It's easy to let it fall by the wayside in the rush of daily life, but without it, friendship -- even marriage -- can begin to wither. Bringing true conversation back into your life means making time and space for it. You can't have a slow conversation by e-mail; the phone's an option only when distance is a factor. The best opportunity for real conversation is when two people are physically together, with no time limit and no cell phones in sight. It could be a three-hour dinner with a friend or a long car trip with a spouse; in the fullness of that kind of unstructured time talks can meander among memories of the past, plans for the future and everything in between. "That's when you get the full palette of interaction -- gesture, tone, facial expression, even shared silence," says Miller. "You go away feeling completely connected."
There's a practical reason why you shouldn't bolt down your food: "It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal your brain that you've had enough," says Kim Gorman, RD, director of the weight management program at the University of Colorado, Denver, Health Sciences Center. "If you eat slowly you're less likely to overeat." But that's not the whole story. Slow Food USA, an organization that has 225 chapters nationwide, says you'll eat better and healthier but also with considerably more pleasure if mealtime means more than rushing out for fast food and gulping it down. Slow eating also means knowing where your food comes from and taking time to prepare home-cooked meals with your family, even if it's just once or twice a week. "There's something special about being with the people you love in a good-smelling kitchen," says Josh Viertel, the group's president. It creates memories and makes everyone appreciate the meal more. "When you've spent a half hour shelling peas, you notice how they taste." What else helps you appreciate your food? Buy locally when possible, so you can enjoy fresh flavors and textures, and sit down to eat together as a family -- a way to fill your soul as well as your stomach.