How walking can improve thinking, communication, creativity and wellbeing
Steve Jobs enjoyed the productivity of walking meetings. William Wordsworth’s creativity flowed from being in the open air. Aristotle lectured on the move and Henry David Thoreau did his best thinking while sauntering about. What could taking a stroll do for you?
Walking can inspire conversation, improve relationships, unlock creativity, foster mindfulness, reduce stress and increase productivity. Walking also improves physical health and overall mental wellbeing. Here are some reasons why:
Time to think
Walking gives times time for reflection. There are a multitude of things clamouring for our attention so it is very easy to become reactive rather than proactive in our decision-making. Equally, being busy hampers our ability to create space and think creatively.
It is very hard to think constructively if pressed up against someone on public transport, while concentrating on driving or when staring at a computer screen. We need the time and the environment to think properly.
Getting up and taking a walk, even if it is to the water cooler, the coffee shop or local-park, can improve your thought processes. As Henry David Thoreau commented, getting out for a walk helps to free us from worldly engagements. Then we can start to think more clearly.
“We are fallen mostly into pieces but the wild returns us to ourselves.” Robert Macfarlane
Getting up and walking can help to give perspective. When we sit and concentrate on something we naturally focus on one thing. As we dwell on something it magnifies and the task or challenge can take over the whole of our field of vision and dominate the conscious mind. Concentration of this sort is very powerful but if we hit some sort of blockage – be that cognitive or emotional – it is very hard to break out of that situation.
By stepping out we can free ourselves of these confines and find new perspective. Being able to see the horizon can make a real difference to how we feel. When our senses are triggered by other stimuli – be that sun or rain on our faces, the smell of wet grass or freshly baked bread, or the sound of a river or the wind in the trees – then our thoughts and feelings can be brought into context. Once we regain a clearer perspective then we allow new ideas and energy to flow in. In this way we can better deal with the challenges we are facing.
Mindfulness and Thankfulness
There is growing interest in mindfulness and this interest highlights the importance of being able to appreciate the present rather than living in the future or in the past. Being in the moment can help keep us grounded and can reduce stress.
There are various approaches to this sort of meditative state but I find that being in creation, surrounded by nature, fosters in me a feeling of thankfulness and spiritual connection that I do not experience in other circumstances. Walking can promote a positive or prayerful state, particularly when surrounded by the grandeur and beauty of the natural world.
A study at Stanford demonstrated that a person’s creative output increases by an average of 60% when walking (Opezzo and Schwartz, 2014). The research proved that just the physical activity of walking makes us more creative.
When we add an improved environment to this activity, by getting outside, our creativity can improve all the more. Being open to external influences and new experiences enables us to generate new connections and solutions.
Sitting still by definition means you are not going anywhere. Walking, by contrast has direction, momentum and purpose. If you hit a blockage in your thinking get on the move to enable your problem solving.
Therefore it is no surprise that writers, poets, entrepreneurs and great thinkers down the ages have often taken long walks to spark their imagination and inventiveness.
An Aid to Productivity
I am a keen reader and walking and reading is not easy (and generally not recommended), but with advent of mobile technology we can enjoy podcasts and audio books as well as music on our walks. In this way walking can be a learning experience.
We can get work done too. I frequently save telephone calls for when I am walking between engagements, as this is a good use of time as well as generally being more pleasant than sitting at a desk. With increasingly good software available on mobile devices it is now easy to dictate as you walk too. You can capture thoughts, draft emails and make appointments as you amble along. Just remember, if you want time to think and reflect, remember to take your earphones out from time to time!
A journey to better relationships
I often choose to go for a walk when meeting someone. Whether it is discussing something with my wife, having a work meeting or even conducting a coaching session, I often find that going for a walk is conducive to good conversation. I think this is partly due to some of the reasons already outlined but there is also a powerful physical and psychological link that is created by walking with someone.
When walking together you are generally side-by-side as equals. This equality in proximity can help to foster parity in the thinking and conversation. Even when meeting someone in a line-management context there is no desk to get in the way or dominance from someone sitting in a larger chair. Getting outside generally provides a neutral environment too. By removing people from a work or even a home situation, not only are distractions reduced, you can also create a place where people feel they matter in equal terms.
Walking with purpose
When you are walking together you are also going in the same direction. This is important as it can help to bring alignment psychologically. It develops partnership as, by the nature of walking together, you are sharing a common purpose and destination. This can help bring about the same if your conversation.
In this was walking is in contrast to sitting facing someone, which is often the way we conduct meetings, and psychologically the reverse. When sitting (or standing) facing someone you can easily become more defensive of adversarial. The dynamic can become one of holding ground, looking in opposite directions. This can lead to a more critical form of debate. If emotions get raised then walking can work off some of the energy through exertion. If you are facing someone it is harder to de-escalate a situation.
Communicating on the move
If walking is so good for communication, what about eye contact? This is a good point, and in most circumstances I would recommend good eye contact for effective listening. When walking, as long as there are not too many obstacles, you can frequently look to the person talking, but eye contact is hard to maintain.
This situation can have some advantages though. Maintaining eye contact can sometimes make people feel self-conscious and in some situations or cultures it can even be inappropriate. Walking can provide a less pressured context for listening although it may take more concentration by the listener to make sure someone is properly heard and encouraged.
Walking can have another advantage to listening. The act of walking makes silences less pronounced and awkward. This means it is easier to give time and space for introspection and the construction of a thoughtful response. It reduces the need to quickly respond to what someone has said without reflection.
Walking to better health
“Walking is man’s best medicine” Hippocrates
The various physical and mental health benefits of walking have been known for a long time and are widely reported. Walking provides an easy (most of us do it already), cheap (no gym fees) and accessible (you can do it pretty much anywhere) way to do exercise.
It has been shown that even 20 minutes of light exercise, such as walking, can reduce the risk of death considerably, as was highlighter in the European Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study. Research conducted by Cambridge University has shown that even in cities with pollution the benefits outweigh the risks.
So why not take a stroll yourself?
So walking can help you solve problems, gain clarity, have effective one-to-one meetings and helps you get fitter to boot. Not sure about the weather? Well the Norwegians say there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing (and there are still nice places to walk inside if you disagree!)
And for inspiration I leave you with this:
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.” Soren Kierkegaard
Now, why not take a stroll for yourself?
Opezzo and Schwartz, 2014; http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xlm-a0036577.pdf)