“All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”
Over the years I have talked to my clients about how to fit pauses into their workday to: reset their emotions; reflect or; have some thinking time. Typically we will discuss time management, emotional regulation and accountability to ensure the new behaviours stick. Often they come up with little hacks like, 50-minute meetings or taking the stairs not the lift, to ensure they have a much needed pause in their hectic schedules. As I was chatting to a client recently about his work, I was reminded of the unappreciated art of strolling, the practice of just taking a slow casual wander with no fixed destination, or route at a deliberately slow pace. Typically, when we think of the benefits of walking the image that comes to mind is a person working up a sweat in their active wear. Yet philosophers for centuries have expounded the benefits of taking a slow directionless walk.
So what are the positive impacts of going for a leisurely aimless stroll?
Mood: Researchers have found only 10-15 minutes of walking decreases tension, increases calmness and causes a shift towards a “more pleasant mood”. Casual walking reduces feelings of boredom and dread and invokes positive memories. The mind can mirror the body when you consciously move slowly. Literally walking slowly away from an emotionally intense situation and environment reduces the likelihood of ‘catching’ the negative emotions and enables time and space for emotional regulation. Creativity: Typically when we solve problems our brain filters the ideas that we should access and retrieve. However when we engage in a comfortable simple task, it relaxes this suppression of memories, as a result “Walking opens up the free flow of ideas”. Regular readers would be aware that often creative ideas come from novel connections between existing knowledge. (click here for my creativity blog). Apparently Marc Cohn’s walk around Memphis, was a pivotal awakening moment in his career. Physical health: When you walk slowly, you are not as efficient as when you are walking at your natural stride rate. At a slower pace your muscles work a bit harder with each step, because you lose the momentum of already being in motion. A fascinating study found that when people reduced sitting time by walking it was more effective in improving their insulin level and lipid parameters than 1 hour of moderate to vigorous bicycle exercise. Mind: A casual stroll during the work day will improve concentration, attentiveness, and memory. A wander without technology allows for uninterrupted time to think and ponder. Rumination decreases with exposure to the variety of stimuli a person sees on their slow walk out of their regular environment.
“When I stop I cease to think; my mind only works with my legs.”
Why does it work?
Walking slowly is beneficial because it does not require too much conscious effort, facilitating the kind of free-flowing mental state that studies commonly link to strokes of insight. In addition access to novel spaces allows you to remove yourself from your customary environments and think afresh in new surroundings. Finally, it is very practical and achievable in a busy work day to get up and go for a short wander around the block. Much to the surprise of many, I have recently embraced the aimless stroll, and am enjoying its presence in my daily routine. So next time you are in a conundrum; just need a break; or feel, that you are “walking on broken glass”; head outside for a short stroll. Remember you don’t have to walk 500 miles, simply block out your diary, pack away your phone and go. If you wish, please send me an email of something interesting you discover while strolling. I have also added some fun walking songs to the blog playlist so click here to have a listen.
References and further reading.
Duvivier, B.M.F.M., Schaper, N.C., Bremers, M.A., van Crombrugge, G., Menheere, P.P.C.A., Kars, M. and Savelberg, H.H.C.M. (2013). Minimal Intensity Physical Activity (Standing and Walking) of Longer Duration Improves Insulin Action and Plasma Lipids More than Shorter Periods of Moderate to Vigorous Exercise (Cycling) in Sedentary Subjects When Energy Expenditure Is Comparable. PLoS ONE, 8(2), p.e55542.
Oppezzo, M. and Schwartz, D.L. (2014). Give your ideas some legs: The positive effect of walking on creative thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(4), pp.1142–1152.
Natanzon, M. and Ferguson, M.J. (2012). Goal pursuit is grounded: The link between forward movement and achievement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), pp.379–382.
Koch, S.C., Fuchs, T. and Summa, M. (2014). Body memory and kinesthetic body feedback: The impact of light versus strong movement qualities on affect and cognition. Memory Studies, 7(3), pp.272–284.
Ekkekakis, P., Hall, E.E., VanLanduyt, L.M. and Petruzzello, S.J. (2000). Walking in (affective) circles: can short walks enhance affect? Journal of Behavioral Medicine, [online] 23(3), pp.245–275. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1005558025163.
Miller, J.C. and Krizan, Z. (2016). Walking facilitates positive affect (even when expecting the opposite). Emotion, 16(5), pp.775–785.
Bratman, G.N., Hamilton, J.P., Hahn, K.S., Daily, G.C. and Gross, J.J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, [online] 112(28), pp.8567–8572. Available at: https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/early/2015/06/23/1510459112.full.pdf.
Webb, C.E., Rossignac-Milon, M. and Higgins, E.T. (2017). Stepping forward together: Could walking facilitate interpersonal conflict resolution? American Psychologist, 72(4), pp.374–385.