It’s no secret that there are benefits to stressing your body. Between physical exercise during a hard workout and mental exercises at our jobs, our bodies are all too familiar with stress. There is plenty of research that demonstrates how, regardless of the task at hand, our output begins to suffer after two consecutive hours of hard work. As we discuss in our book Peak Performance, we learned that we do our best work in cycles of intense effort followed by short breaks.
It’s important to step away from our work so as to engage the creative power of our subconscious mind. There are many ways to do this and not all of them are created equal. Browsing social media, for example, isn’t nearly as effective as taking a walk.
In his book The War of Art, award-winning author Steven Pressfield writes of his walks: “I take a pocket tape recorder because I know that as my surface mind empties with the walk, another part of me will chime in and start talking . . . The word ‘leer’ on page 342 should be ‘ogle’ instead; You repeated yourself in Chapter 21. The last sentence is just like the one in the middle of Chapter 7.” Pressfield is not alone. Many of the best writers and thinkers have sworn by their walking breaks.
Taking a stroll isn’t just useful for creatives like writers, artists, and inventors. When Brad was working on complicated financial models at McKinsey & Company, he’d take walks throughout the day, especially when he felt stuck. Almost without fail, what he couldn’t figure out while staring at the screen popped into his mind during or immediately following a walk.
Stepping away from your work takes a lot of guts, especially when you’re on a tight deadline. Sometimes you simply don’t have the time to walk very far. The good news is that even short walks can provide big benefits.
In a study cleverly titled “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking,” researchers from Stanford University examined the effects of a short walking break. They instructed subjects to take short walking breaks outdoors, indoors, or not at all. Following their walk, they assessed participants’ creativity. They asked them to generate as many nontraditional uses as possible for common items. For example, a tire could be used as a floatation device, as a basketball hoop, or as a swing. (This is called a Guilford’s Alternate Uses Test and is a commonly used method for measuring creativity.) Those who took as brief as a 6-minute walk outdoors increased creativity by more than 60 percent versus those who had remained seated at their desks. Although walking outdoors yielded the most pronounced benefits, those who walked indoors still generated about 40 percent more creative ideas than those who didn’t walk at all. This suggests that even if you can’t walk outside (e.g., it’s winter, there are no sidewalks nearby, etc.), taking a few laps around the office or hopping on a treadmill is still highly beneficial.
At first, the researchers suspected that increased blood-flow to the brain was the culprit behind the walks’ benefits. However, it appears that the benefits might also stem from the interplay between walking and attention. Since walking requires just enough coordination to occupy the part of our brain responsible for effortful thinking, it ever so slightly distracts our conscious mind. As a result, when walking, it’s easier to tap into our creative engine, our subconscious. This explains why walking tends to be more effective at fostering creativity than other movements that require greater focus and coordination, like dancing or lifting weights. Walking occupies us just enough to help us stop thinking about whatever it is we were working on, but not too much as to prevent mind-wandering. It’s the perfect gateway into the subconscious mind and for stimulating creative insight that can help us overcome mental gridlock.
Tight on time? This quickie workout will help you squeeze in some exercise:
In addition to the cognitive benefits, walking breaks are also great for physical health. You’ve probably heard by now that “sitting is the new smoking.” Long, uninterrupted bouts of sitting are awful for your health, and sitting can even undo gains from exercise. Fortunately, the latest science shows that taking just a two-minute walk every hour is protective against many of sitting’s ill effects. One study even showed that these short walks reduce the risk of premature death by 33 percent.
Consider us convinced. Let’s get to walking!
Find more tips for creating your own success in Peak Performance, and learn how to enhance your performance by optimally alternating between periods of intense work and rest; prime your body and mind for enhanced productivity; and develop and harness the power of a self-transcending purpose.