"...that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow."
September 6, 2014 5:15 AM   Subscribe

Why Walking Helps Us Think: [The New Yorker] In a variety of ways, going for a stroll keeps our brains on their toes.
posted by Fizz (25 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I normally walk 4 miles a day, but for past couple months I've also been taking mega-walks every Saturday and Sunday to visit my mother (she's 86 and we love watching golf together). That walk is 6 miles each way and it's pure bliss for me. I love the solitude and the process of just observing things - although my legs and feet are tired at the end, my mind is always in a very good state. Also, my route takes me through the neighborhood where I spent my childhood, so there's a strong flashback component mixed in. I suddenly feel like I'm 12, walking to my friend's house.

Walking definitely helps me keep sane.
posted by davebush at 5:46 AM on September 6, 2014 [13 favorites]

Related: David Sedaris Living the Fitbit Life [The New Yorker]

The Sedaris piece had me chuckling. Definitely worth reading.

Also, at this point I'm just going to assume that every third article on The New Yorker is either about walking or written by David Sedaris.
posted by Fizz at 5:51 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I'm vexed by a computer problem at work, I will take a walk around the building - go visit with co-workers in disparate departments, shoot the breeze for a sec, & often the best brain cleansing activity for me is to find a broom & sweep up a section of floor. My boss questions whether sweeping is the best use of my salary, but once I explained to him that it was a part of my thinking process, he left me alone. Tidying up a physical space is a way of tidying up my rambling thoughts & it helps me focus. I just about always return to the .psd file or the spreadsheet with a fresh idea, & faster than I would have if I had sat in my chair, frustrated, banging my head against the screen.

Smoke breaks used to do this for me, but I've been off the Camel Filters for almost 5 years now & that strategy was going to kill me. Strolling about or sweeping up seems like a healthier way to give my brain a stretch.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:02 AM on September 6, 2014 [15 favorites]

I love walking, but it can be hard to put together walks that are both interesting and safe from being hit by a car. Narrow rural roads with no shoulders and blind corners are the worst, with fast cars swinging wide around corners and nowhere to get out of the way. The best was when I lived next to a network of semi-abandoned old farm roads with no traffic other than an occasional tractor.

The article itself is actually pretty thin, though. Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking had a lot more going on.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:04 AM on September 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Walking is my default process-the-relationship mode. So many issues, disagreements, and fights settled on a walk. So many solutions, work-arounds, compromises . . . .
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:43 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

This, so much this.

"Walking is the Western form of meditation: “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.”

I walked 350 miles this past summer and 200 miles the previous summer and it is absolutely joyous.
posted by bluesky43 at 8:33 AM on September 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

I have a goal of 12 miles per week, which I usually blow past (but it gives me a cushion in case work gets busy.) I've been doing more and more of these miles via hiking, and that really is a great way to clear your mind to a point where you can think straight. I've been on trails where I haven't seen another person in four hours. Some of my trails are steep and it's kind of amazing how clear my mind gets the higher I climb. Can't wait for summer to be over so I can really get out onto some of the longer trails.
posted by azpenguin at 8:36 AM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

davebush: "I normally walk 4 miles a day..."


The longest I ever walked, was apparently 4.3 miles according to Google Maps. At the time I had no music or anything it was just a country walk. I think it was the summer after we had graduated high school, IIRC. My initial goal was about 8 miles (a round trip) but after stopping at my friends house (which was my intial plan) I decided to call my dad. Couldn't stand to walk the other 3.9 miles. This was near my peak "in shape" moment.

I have too many insecurities and I walk too fast (due to walking with long legged people and I'm a short legged fat dude) so it's hard to pace myself when walking. I use a treadmill, but then distract myself with video of things like "The Regular Show" -- if walking helped me cogitate then perhaps I should try again, especially since I program and problem solving is important.
posted by symbioid at 8:45 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been on trails where I haven't seen another person in four hours

I'm all for solo treks. Just be careful. Take a cell phone or GPS with you. Also, always let someone know where you're going, what trail you're using, and when you expect to return. Hopefully, you're already doing these things but it never hurts to remind others how important it is.

I run solo on country roads and trails, so I'm always keeping others aware of my location, because you never know...

Happy Trails!
posted by Fizz at 8:49 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I walk cause I am bait old to run these days. But at 85 I walk in the woods for three miles a few times a week.
posted by Postroad at 9:03 AM on September 6, 2014 [16 favorites]

Mandatory link to Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, where he uses the aboriginal Australian's culture to argue that humans are by nature migratory, and we do best when we walk long. There's a bit of latent colonialism and exoticism, but it's a great read.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:26 AM on September 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've been walking more recently because I get paid to do it (I create walks for a phone app). I've definitely noticed an increase in free-association while I'm walking. I don't listen to music or walk with anyone else, so it's just me and the herons, or whatever else is dotting about, doing its thing.

I often find myself composing article or lists of things in my head as I'm going along, or thinking back over conversations I had years ago and 'rehearsing' them again. Walking tends to be quite a cerebral activity for me - other than watching to make sure I don't walk into the road or taking photographs, my attention is free to drift.

Here in the UK we're really lucky in that we have many many miles of public right of way. These might be a path through a wood or across a field or down a country road. I was walking along one for a walk once, went through a gate and got surprised by a llama poking its head over the fence to take a look at me. It had been hidden behind a hedge bordering the next field over.

The Headspace foundation have a podcast for walking meditation (click "download mp3").
posted by Solomon at 9:37 AM on September 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Another mandatory link: Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust: A History of Walking

EDIT: On preview, her book is already mentioned. So that's now two recommendations!
posted by Mister Bijou at 9:50 AM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

My employer is heavily promoting this stupid walking idea. They will remodel your office to accommodate a treadmill desk. All the public computer kiosks have treadmills. People are encouraged to schedule "walking meetings" around the campus. The remote warehouse facilities all have outdoor walking tracks (which are all overgrown with weeds since nobody uses them).

But now they have gone too far. I work in a windowless basement office, the one thing I look forward to all day is my breaks, where I can go to the lunch room which has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over a thicket of trees. Now the break room is closed for remodeling. It is being turned into a fitness center, with a dozen treadmills. There will be no lunchroom in this building. They are deliberately forcing people to walk to the cafeteria in a building several blocks away. You can't eat at your desk and there is no other place to sit during breaks, except a picnic table outside. The cafeteria is only open from 11AM to 2PM, so if you are busy and can't get away, you are locked out.

This plan was obviously not well-thought out. Thursday it was 92F and a heat index over 100F. Soon it will be winter, there are times when it will be perilous to even go outside. The facilities maintenance people don't plow the sidewalks between my building and the cafeteria, so you have to walk in the street, which means going far out of your way compared to the normal sidewalk route. And of course there is no way to accommodate the disabled, or even people who are not disabled but have difficulty walking long distances. So the plan is probably illegal under the ADA.

The hell with this. Once the new fitness center is completed, I am going to reserve a treadmill every day at noon. And then I am going to sit down on it and eat my lunch there. My fitness is best supported with a peaceful and easily accessible lunch area, so I can eat a healthy meal I have made for myself and brought to work, then finish it and go complete my work and go home and then I can exercise on my own time, in my own place.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:10 AM on September 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander—to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight. Earlier this year, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz of Stanford published what is likely the first set of studies that directly measure the way walking changes creativity in the moment. They got the idea for the studies while on a walk. “My doctoral advisor had the habit of going for walks with his students to brainstorm,” Oppezzo says of Schwartz. “One day we got kind of meta.”

In the director's commentary on the DVD of Even Dwarfs Started Small Werner Herzog talks exactly about this phenomenon. How he takes walks and doesn't even know where his feet carry him, for miles and miles and miles, and his head fills with imagery, and thoughts and ideas for films and so on - he describes it as something that he's done ever since he can remember, and can't imagine a creative life without it.

It would be interesting to tease out which elements are responsible for what. They mentioned blood flow and oxygen - but what part of the mental benefits and creativity are aided by that aspect - for example, would you get the same benefit from a treadmill or stepper etc.? What part of those creativity benefits are due to the fact that you simply have some free time while occupied with some menial activity - f.ex. the frequent afflatus that strikes one while taking a shower. And what part of the benefit of walking is simply being in different surroundings from your study or living room - f.ex. we frequently feel inspired by a trip abroad and the surroundings, nothing to do with the activity of walking itself. Or just the images that appear before your eyes allowing for more images to inspire - the same way you might get inspired by a series of photographic images, or paintings etc.

I suspect many of the creativity benefits to walking are a compound of multiple elements that happen to coincide with the activity, but not necessarily being centered on the physiological action of legs moving, blood and oxygen etc. Some part, but not all. We need more science, though personal anecdata are always fun.
posted by VikingSword at 11:05 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sometimes when I am having trouble with a lesson plan or an assignment, I'll go for a run and find myself "solving" or "fixing" my problem in my head as I run. It lets me think about the issue without having to stare at the issue. It's a way of thinking "around" the problem. I'm not confronted with a mess of papers and markings or a mass of blank word documents which at times only furthers the anxiety around the problem at hand.

I think it's the fresh air that lets my body and mind breathe. I don't know about the science behind it, but it definitely helps me.
posted by Fizz at 11:09 AM on September 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

The article itself is actually pretty thin, though.

Par for the course for the New Yorker. The magazine for under-thinkers who think they over-think...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:46 AM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been struggling with my life a little recently, and the high point of my day is the 4 mile walk I take on the long route home. It's 2 miles through fields to the railway path, then a blissfully quiet mile through a tunnel in a kind of sensory deprivation, then another mile home. It's been a useful hour of every day for me.
posted by ambrosen at 1:00 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane is a great book about walking: "In this exquisitely written book, which folds together natural history, cartography, geology, and literature, Robert Macfarlane sets off to follow the ancient routes that crisscross both the landscape of the British Isles and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling exploration of the voices that haunt old paths and the stories our tracks tell. "
posted by dhruva at 1:36 PM on September 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Patrick Leigh Fermor's motto was 'Solvitur ambulando': it is solved by walking.
posted by Huw at 3:25 PM on September 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Back when I was a paid columnist, I found I did best best work and came up with content quicker when I would pace around the house/yard for a bit, bend over at the desk, type a few sentences, then resume pacing. I recently switched to a standing desk at home--not because I was sitting for long stretches, but to facilitate the same workflow.
posted by sourwookie at 6:50 PM on September 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

So the great composer Erik Satie would walk about 6 miles every day into Paris. I'm convinced that's what helped make him the composer he was. Also stopping at every pub along the way.

I only walk 5 miles a day (and take Tuesdays off). I don't have the money to stop at any pubs. That's why I'm only half the composer Satie is.
posted by bfootdav at 8:49 AM on September 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

FizzL I'm all for solo treks. Just be careful. Take a cell phone or GPS with you. Also, always let someone know where you're going, what trail you're using, and when you expect to return. Hopefully, you're already doing these things but it never hurts to remind others how important it is.

You are free to make your own decisions, but your advice is pure scaremongering to me. Most of us who have lived in rural areas are aware that, occasional sensationalist national news stories and horror movies aside, rural areas in most of the civilized world are much, much, much safer than urban areas, which themselves are much, much, much safer than most of us believe. Even if the MAN whom you were replying to were a woman, the risks would be much greater... but still low.

I've never taken a GPS, and never worn a cellphone with intent to use it as a safety device. I've hiked, camped alone, and gone on long country road walks... AND YET I LIVE!

Seriously: promoting fear under the guise of promoting "caution" is wrong.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:50 AM on September 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Grew up in scouting. Was always told to be prepared. I guess that's just ingrained in me. If it works for you them that's good. I don't see the harm in just general safe advice. But to each their own.

I'm glad you're enjoying the outdoors. Cheers.
posted by Fizz at 9:42 AM on September 7, 2014

You are free to make your own decisions, but your advice is pure scaremongering to me.

I am ashamed to say that I scaremonger myself. I love walking, but whenever I go by myself, I just feel . . . incredibly vulnerable and exposed. It takes all the fun out of it. Except for occasional car horns honking at me, I have had no bad experiences that might lead me to feel this way. It just seems to be the way I am.
posted by JanetLand at 7:30 AM on September 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

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