Why some of the best minds in the world walk every day
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About 13 years ago, I was overweight, in poor health, and on the fast path to an early grave. The very first thing I did to save my life was starting a habit of evening walks with my wife.
After dinner, we would walk up the steep hills in our neighborhood to the summit and back down. It took about an hour, which felt like a luxury of time that I couldn’t afford with my busy work schedule (I was an exec at Yahoo at that time).
However, the truth was it was a time investment that I had to “afford” or I would pay an unacceptable price later. I already had friends and acquaintances who had died from heart disease, sudden strokes, and cancer.
Did I want to see my children grow up? Did I want to meet my grandchildren someday? Well, I had to make a tough decision.
Do I make time for physical activity to improve my health but take time away from work, which I suspected would harm me a little professionally?
Or, do I spend that time working every evening to aggressively advance my career, knowing that I was risking my health and would die an earlier death?
Luckily, I chose to invest in myself, my health, and my future. I’m doubly glad that I did because I made a fantastic discovery along the way:
Taking a break from work for exercise, walking, and thinking made me more creative, helped me solve stubborn problems, and boosted my energy and productivity later!
That investment of time more than paid for itself, in so many ways.
I had more energy and enthusiasm.
I no longer felt sleepy and burned out early in the evening.
It helped me visualize creative solutions when I faced an intractable problem.
I was more productive when I returned to work.
People at work noticed the “new me” and how positive and energetic I was.
I began envisioning a more exciting professional future.
I made plans to turn my dreams into reality (e.g., starting my own business, moving closer to the mountains and national forests).
My future suddenly seemed bright again.
I began a health and fitness journey that has lasted more than 13 years and is a part of my daily life. I lift weights every morning, walk two miles every day, and run 2+ miles with my wife every night (and 6+ miles on the weekends).
I’m more innovative and creative, and I often write articles in my head while walking and running.
I’m not saying any of this to brag or show off. I’m sharing this — as someone in his 50s — to demonstrate that it’s never too late to improve your health and fitness. More importantly, I’m sharing this to talk about how the simple act of daily walking can have a profoundly positive impact on your physical health, cognitive capabilities, and professional success!
Some people who use walking (or used to when they were alive) to improve their thinking, working, and productivity:
Aristotle gave his lectures while walking the grounds of his school in Athens.
Nassim Taleb talked about why he enjoys a mixture of slow, leisurely, conversational walks and intense brisk walks.
Susan Froetschel said, “As I walk along familiar streets in my neighborhood, I think about my writing and observe my surroundings, gathering descriptions of trees and sky and weather.”
Charles Dickens wrote in the morning, walked in the afternoon, and said, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”
Steve Jobs walked to clear his head and solve problems. He would often hold walking meetings to keep everyone focused and productive and to keep ideas flowing.
Walking played a significant role in Virginia Woolf’s creative writing process.
Søren Kierkegaard used walking to think through ideas and write in his head (I do this all time too).
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being & 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. But by sitting still, & the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.” — Søren Kierkegaard
Ludwig Van Beethoven took long, solitary walks to think, be creative, and capture new musical ideas.
Charles Darwin walked every morning before breakfast and twice again in the afternoon.
While researching this newsletter, I found hundreds of more examples of intelligent and talented people who make — or made — a walk part of their daily lives. I think you get the point. They might be onto something…
Benefits of Daily Walks
I simply enjoy my daily walks. Even if there were no tangible benefits — other than the enjoyment — I’d still make time for them.
However, there’s plenty of scientific evidence that walking is good for you in many, many ways. Here are some examples.
Walking briskly for about an hour a day cut the effects of weight-promoting genes in half for study participants.
Walking can reduce cravings and the intake of a variety of sugary snacks.
An American Cancer Society study found that women who walked seven or more hours a week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer than those who walked three hours or fewer per week.
Walking reduces arthritis pain, and walking 5-6 miles a week can prevent arthritis from forming in the first place.
A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least five days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less.
People in the “Blue Zones” of the world (i.e., with the highest proportions of people who reach age 100) walk everywhere and every single day.
Adults who take 8,000 or more steps a day have a reduced risk of death over the following decade than those who only walk 4,000 steps a day.
Cardiorespiratory fitness is inversely associated with long-term mortality with no upper limit of benefit (supporting research).
The sweet spot for physical activity and longevity seems to be about 35 minutes a day of brisk walking or other moderate activities.
Walking outdoors improves cognitive performance and induces a more meditative state than indoor exercise.
Prolonged uninterrupted sitting at a desk reduces cerebral blood flow (which is associated with lower cognitive functioning and increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases); however, this is offset when frequent short-duration walking breaks are incorporated into the day.
Employees who used their lunch break to take a walk in a park experienced higher levels of well-being at the end of a working day.
Walking promotes positive affect and can override the effects of other negative feelings such as boredom and dread.
Three short, brisk walks (e.g.,10 min) during the day can reduce cardiovascular risk and improve aspects of mood in previously sedentary individuals.
Walking opens up the free flow of ideas and boosts creativity.
Walking can help you break free of mental blocks and solve problems.
Employees who walked in a park at lunchtime enjoyed better concentration later and less fatigue in the afternoon.
With my own experiences with walking outdoors, I’ve found that it:
Becomes a form of physical meditation
Improves my mood and calms me
Reduces my stress and anxiety
Boost my creativity
Helps me solve problems more easily
Helps me keep things in perspective
Increases my energy levels
Improves my relationship with my wife (e.g., we talk about our day)
Helps me sleep better
Depending on the time of year and weather, my wife and I walk about two miles (and run another two miles) either before or after dinner in the evening. We usually do longer hikes and trail runs on the weekend.
Even though our daily walks and runs only take about an hour, I can see where carving out more time for it might be challenging for some people with already packed schedules. So, here are some ideas for creatively working walking into your day.
A coworker introduced me to walking meetings several years ago (Thanks, Mike!). They’re great for physical meetings in the real world when weather permits.
However, now we have most of our meetings virtually over Zoom, Google Meet, Skype, Teams, etc. While it’s possible to use these apps on your phone while walking, they aren’t designed for that experience.
Are you sick of video meetings? If so, you should check out Spot.
Their mobile app is a collaboration tool built to support walking meetings. You jot down agenda items to discuss, share your personal room link, join the meeting, and enjoy the walk!
Remember making phone calls? Remember having conference calls before Zoom?
During the quarantines that started in 2020, a friend of mine started doing most of her work calls while walking. No video. Just a Bluetooth headset and her phone. She got some serious miles in!
Wild, huh? Imagine that. A regular old phone call!
I know that many people are complaining about Zoom fatigue. So, see if you can change some of your video meetings into simple phone calls.
Calls are also safer when you’re walking, although I highly recommend a Bluetooth headset (e.g., AirPods). You don’t want to be staring at a screen when you should be paying attention to your surroundings (e.g., avoiding traffic in crosswalks).
You need to eat, right? Well, instead of eating at your desk or wolfing down a meal during a meeting at your desk, take a walking lunch.
I used to do that when I was still working with people in Silicon Valley. We’d grab a meal that was easy to eat while walking (e.g., sandwich, burrito, smoothie). Then, we’d walk, talk, and eat.
I know that’s not a very intense walking session when you’re also eating. But, we’d walk very briskly to the cafe and also walk briskly back to the office when we finished eating.
If you’re crazy, you could even try a lunch walk like my friend Anke took me on when we were in The Hague. We were there for a conference, and she said she knew a great place for lunch nearby. She said we could easily walk there (no taxi required).
Well, that “short walk” was actually over two hours! We walked two hours to the restaurant, had lunch, and walked two hours back to the conference. No wonder she’s so fit if that’s her idea of a short walk.
Just do it
Don’t worry about intensity or distance if you’re just getting started with making walking part of your daily life. Just make time for some walking every day. Just do it!
The best physical activity is the one you won’t give up. So, take your time and ease into it.
Do you know how many times I started and stopped running in my lifetime? I lost track. I can’t even remember how many times I started and then gave up lifting weights for the first 40+ years of my life. I tried to begin with way too much intensity.
My journey to where I am today with my fitness and activity levels started with a simple and easy evening walk. Now, I can’t imagine a day without it.
I know that you want a long, healthy, and happy life. We all do! I know that you want to achieve success in your professional life too. You wouldn’t be reading this newsletter or listening to my podcast if you didn’t.
Initially, it may have seemed strange that I chose the topic of walking for this article. But, now I hope you can see why.
Let me know how your daily walking goes!
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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who hosts a private mastermind community for solopreneurs and entrepreneurs who want more accountability and support. If you’re not interested in starting your own business someday (or accelerating an existing one), that community probably isn’t for you.
Larry lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others take complete control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.