The Greatest Benefit of Walking Has Nothing To Do With Exercise
The single, most valuable benefit of going for a walk actually has nothing to do with fitness at all.
Frankly, walking is one of the least effective ways to lose weight and get in shape.
In fact, the International Journal of Obesity concluded that high intensity interval training (HIIT) was up to 6 times more effective at burning fat than steady-state cardio. You can read more about that in the article entitled What's The Best Cardio: Steady-State or HIIT? 
And for a deeper dive with actionable tips on efficient fat-loss, take a listen to this episode of the Optimal Performance Podcast entitled Burn More Fat: Become a Fat-Burning Beast with Mark Sisson.
But if we shift the focus away from #physiquegoals, it's true that activity of any sort is known to have a profound effect on cognition and how you feel.
Whether it’s lifting weights, going for a run, practicing yoga, or simply opting to stand instead of sit at your desk at work; it’s all brain food.
Movement just seems to make the ol' meat machine run a little bit better.
The results of a Stanford study from 2004 showed that the simple act of walking was able to increase creativity in participants by up to 81% .
Participants in the study generated more novel ideas when they were walking, not sitting, and the scientists who implemented the study found that when you walk for its own sake, with no imminent goal or reward, your mind is in a more associative state and better able to relax the suppression of old memories, thus putting your mind in the best state to generate creative new ideas.
Simply put, walking is the simplest methodology that allows ideas to flow freely and unencumbered.
Nietzsche said, “all great things are achieved by walking”.
Now, I don’t know about all great things, but walking, in my experience, is a remarkable way to enhance clarity of mind and cultivate serendipitous new ideas.
Not Into Meditation? Try Going For A Walk.
Walking is an effective way to get you out of your head and relax.
As Tony Robbins says: "if you're in your head, you're dead".
If you spend too much time in your head -- in la la land -- you can get lost there.
Meditation is one way to excise mental demons and wipe the mental slate clean. The main principle of meditation is to focus on your breath; breathe in, breathe out, repeat (congratulations, you're one step closer to enlightenment).
This, as Tim Ferriss likes to say, acts like a warm bath for your mind. It helps invoke a clarity and calmness of mind to counteract the often anxiety-ridden thoughts we have when we spend to much time in our own thoughts.
Walking works in a similar way.
By focusing on the physical steps, one after the other -- this rhythmic patter of feet on concrete -- you're encouraging a mental state that will dissolve the brain fog, stress, and anxiety that are symptomatic of a cluttered and over-stressed mind.
If nothing else, a good walk can produce a refreshing clarity of thought, a new perspective on a problem you're having, or focused sense of priority as you go about your day.
It’s amazing how well this works.
When I go for a walk I only bring one thing with me. It's not my iPhone or a fitness bracelet, but a small notebook – a ‘commonplace book’.
I slip it into my back pocket as I head out the door, knowing that I’ll have at least one good idea on the walk that I'll want to write down. Or at the very least, I'll be able to let the particle haze settle in the snow globe of my mind.
Walking: An Invaluable Tool Among Top Performers, Artists, and Creative Geniuses
History is full of examples of successful people, artists, and other creative types who all had habits of taking long walks.
Charles Dickens liked to take a three-hour stroll through the countryside every afternoon to generate fresh ideas. When asked to comment on this daily habit, Dickens' brother-in-law remarked that, upon returning he “looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore”.
The father of existentialism and all around weirdo, Soren Kierkegaard, had some of his best ideas on long walks through Copenhagen. Often in such a hurry to write them down, returning home, he would write standing up at his desk, still wearing his hat and clutching his umbrella and walking stick.
History's musicians share a love for walking as well. Beethoven often embarked on afternoon strolls to aid his creativity (a possible reason why his productivity was higher during the warmer months). The only thing he brought with him was a pencil and a few sheets of music paper to record any chance musical breakthroughs, which actually occurred with some frequency.
It’s not only the creative artist types that took to meandering walks for inspiration, but academics as well.
For fifteen days straight, the French mathematician and theoretical philosopher, Henri Poincare, sat at his desk drinking black coffee, trying to work through a new mathematical concept, which would later become known as the Fuchsian equation, a critical
One evening while lying in bed, unable to sleep, Poincare had a small hunch about this new concept he'd been working on, but still no definitive breakthrough.
Weeks later on a walk along the shore of Normandy, out of thin air, Poincare had a eureka moment. He hit a few more roadblocks before he could definitively prove the existence of his new theory, but the ideas that brought him closer to the answer always coalesced when he was on foot, whether on the street, or by the ocean.
The free-roaming thinker and philosopher-cum-essayist Michel Montaigne too, frequently had breakthrough ideas on walks, or often while on horseback, rather than mired in tranquil study or sequestered in the confines of his back shop.
It was only when these figures were able to quiet their thinking-minds and step away from the desk that they were able to fill in the piece of a puzzle they had been poring over.
If history has shown us anything, it’s that good ideas are often completed by opportune happenstance, not brute force.
Walking, Flow States, and The Two Selves
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has an influential body of research on the state of being known as "flow". It’s a state in which you feel completely engaged and absorbed in an activity – whether that's rock climbing, long-distance swimming, knitting, having sex, reading, or walking.
In a state of flow you're neither bored nor anxious and hours can fly by unnoticed as you're so immersed in the task at hand.
In his book, The Inner Game of Tennis, Tim Gallwey convincingly argues that the only way to reach this state of flow is to quiet the mind and focus. In order to do this you need to improve the relationship between the two voices – the two Selves – in your head.
We all have them.
Self 1 is the ego-mind, the thinking mind; the Teller.
Self 2 is the unconscious mind, it has all the creative potential; it is the Doer.
Self 1 gives the orders, and stridently pushes Self 2 to perform.
In tennis when you command yourself, “keep your wrist firm!”
Or scold yourself, “you'll never hit a backhand like that!”
That's Self 1 pressuring Self 2 to get it together and perform.
The stress of trying too hard results in tension and muscle conflict in the body. As a result, performance goes down the shitter and frustration builds.
In writing or the performing arts, thinking too hard can stifle Self 2's natural creativity and hinder performance as well. Another example is when you and your friends are trying to remember the name of that one guy from that one movie you saw ten years ago. You’ll scratch your head, driving yourself crazy trying to remember the actor’s name, and it may be on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t spit it out no matter how hard you try.
Later on that evening while brushing your teeth or taking a shower, the name will miraculously pop into your head -- it’s Pauly Shore!
Biodome. What a dumb movie.
The lesson is simple: apply too much pressure, and you'll choke. Too much pressure and the muse will flip you the bird and find another shoulder to stand over.
Another ear to whisper into.
Walking can quiet the conscious thinking mind, allowing the creative juices to percolate to the surface. This harmony produces a clarity of thought and a mental landscape that fosters the formation of serendipitous new ideas and associations.
When it comes to finding the flow in your thinking, walking is one of the best ways I know of.
History is full of creative people who had breakthrough ideas on walks.
From Beethoven to Kierkegaard. Mark Zuckerberg to Steve Jobs, and Henry David Thoreau to Barack Obama.
Each one of them found that walking was a useful tool in generating fresh new ideas. Jobs and Zuckerberg routinely held walking meetings to escape the uninspired boardroom. Others like Poincare, Beethoven, and Montaigne thought walking was useful not only in generating serendipitous ideas, but in completing existing ideas; bringing a network of ideas together, culminating in the fruition of a single cohesive idea that would launch innovation and creativity forward.
Meditation is great for a lot of people, but if you want to experience the meditative benefits another way, and burn a calorie or two, try going for a walk.
Next time you need to readjust your perspective on something or want to introspect, surrender to the rhythmic patter of your steps, one foot after the other.
Let the creativity flow, get meditative, and go figure some shit out.
- Trapp, E. G., Chisholm, D. J., Freund, J., & Boutcher, S. H. (2008). The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. International journal of obesity, 32(4), 684-691.
- Oppezzo, M., & 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), 1142.