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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.
The formula for fast spending is simple: See something, want it, buy it. Before the recent recession it was how many Americans lived, and while the current cash crunch certainly has its drawbacks, it may help you remember the pleasures of a slower, more mindful way.
Slow spending means actively resisting the impulse to whip out your credit card every time you see something you like. Instead, discipline yourself to hold on to your cash while considering why you want it. Do you really need those new wedge sandals or that flat-screen TV? Or are you after a momentary rush, a way to keep up with the neighbors? "You have to ask yourself the hard questions," says Monique Tilford, coauthor of Your Money or Your Life. "Can I truly afford what I want to buy? Will I really use it? Is its value to me in proportion to what it costs? And is buying it consistent with my values?" If the answer to any of those questions is no, walk away. How to cut buying without feeling deprived? "Measure spending against your life goals and deepest desires," says Tilford. "If what's most important to you is to travel or retire early or give more to your church, curbing your spending will help you achieve those things."
The benefits of slow spending range from getting out of debt to teaching your children the value of limits. You'll also have the satisfaction of knowing you're putting less junk in the local landfill, since a lot of impulse buys wind up being discarded. The great gift is that those things also can make you feel good. "Ironically, sometimes the less you spend, the happier you are," says Tilford.
Slow Weight Loss
Every hot and trendy diet promises that you will take off pounds as fast as possible -- satisfying in the short run but not the long. Most people who lose weight quickly gain it back (often along with a little extra padding!), but those who go slowly, at a rate of 1 to 2 pounds a week, are far more likely to keep it off. "Most rapid-weight-loss plans work because when you're on them you eat a very restricted diet, follow directions, and don't have to make decisions about food," says dietitian Kim Gorman, RD. "But you gained weight in the first place because you took in more calories than your body needed, and losing weight permanently requires you to change that imbalance for good." In other words, staying slimmer means accepting that you will never again be able to spend whole evenings eating potato chips on the couch and that you will have to remain aware of the food choices you're making. Going slow gives you time to break bad habits and find new, healthier ones. And as frustrating as it is to drop those 20 (or 50) pounds gradually, it's better than having to lose them again...and again...and again.
No one can knit a scarf or sweater overnight. It takes thousands of stitches, thousands of moments when the only sound is the clicking of needles. Trying to hurry the process just means making mistakes. That's not the frustration of knitting, it's the point. Slow hobbies -- knitting, quilting, embroidery, woodwork -- require patience and deliberation. In return they calm you, putting you in a contemplative zone that's its own kind of therapy. "The rhythmic, repetitive movements of a hobby like knitting are soothing and distracting," says Katherine Applegate, PhD, a clinical psychologist for the Duke University health system. "They seem to lull people."
She advises patients struggling to lose weight to take up sewing and other hands-on crafts to combat stress, which can lead to overeating. Some teachers report that knitting during class calms and focuses kids with ADHD. Even doing a jigsaw puzzle can help. The slow work of a hands-on hobby creates a pace that can soothe the soul.
Rest assured, slow sex isn't about endurance or complicated positions. The point is fun. Play. Touch. It means the sensual joy of lingering on a byway rather than going straight to The Act. "It's mutual pleasuring, not purposeful foreplay," says clinical psychologist Barry McCarthy, PhD, coauthor of Rekindling Desire. Slowed-down sex, which can include massage, teasing, touch that's by turns tender and erotic, may include orgasm, but that's not the goal. It's about building desire and intimacy. Maybe you don't need to be convinced of the benefits of going slow in bed, but its perks will make your husband happy, too, especially over the course of a long marriage. Once he becomes accustomed to sex that heats and cools, advances and retreats, it eases the pressure on him to perform and can mean less panic in later years, when erections often come and go. "The couple that learns to give each other pleasure and to view sex as an intimate expression has a far better chance of remaining sexual later in life," McCarthy says.
Today's family home often resembles a high-pressure workplace, driven by deadlines and to-do lists. Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness, is convinced that chilling out offers a far better (and more enjoyable) way to raise kids. "Slow parenting is about understanding that you don't do things as fast as possible but as well as you can," Honoré explains. "It means giving children the time and space to explore the world and keeping the family schedule under control so there's enough time for you all to just be together." Put another way, it means getting more out of doing less.
Slow parenting doesn't require any fancy equipment -- actually, the less techno gear, the better. Start by clearing the calendar so there's an afternoon that doesn't include soccer practice, piano lessons, or other errands. Turn off phones and computers and take off your watch. Then break out a board game or go outside, read a book out loud, or head outdoors to explore your own backyard. "Maybe you'll all see a bird's nest and watch until the mother returns with food for her babies," Honoré says. "Or perhaps your daughter will spot a ladybug in a rosebush. She'll stop, look, give it a name, invent a story for it -- and if you don't have to break the spell by rushing off to ballet class, the next 15 minutes will be a delight."
The impromptu times in which parents and children share this kind of wonder at the world around them produce a type of closeness that couldn't be planned even if you tried. "These timeless, simple rituals have brought people together for thousands of years," says Honoré. "And they still do."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2010.