How to Spend Your Summer: Go for a Walk

Several weeks ago, we suggested 25 ways to spend your summer. A week later, Geoffrey encouraged you to do a little nothing, and a week after that, Grace urged you to dust off your old bike.

Today, I am going to write about the magic of…walking.

Let me tell you a story.

As I trailed out of my second year argumentative logic lecture, my professor called me aside. If you have ever taken a philosophy course, you may be familiar with the pedagogical approach known as the Socratic Method. If you are not, the Socratic Method can be summed up with one word: confrontational.

So, when my professor bluntly expressed his disappointment with my performance on the weekly quizzes, I was hardly taken aback. What I was surprised by was the praise: apparently, I was doing well in the class discussions. But the extent to which I knew the material wasn’t translating to how I did on the quizzes.

I then disclosed that I get anxious before tests and that my test marks are almost always considerably lower than I expect them to be.

What my professor said next took me by surprise: Have I tried walking?


Have I tried walking?

The final exam was coming up in a few weeks. He challenged me to set aside an hour before the test for a walk. (Yes, an hour.)

I felt so anxious before the exam that my movement resembled more that of an injured gazelle hopping nervously through a plain than somebody walking, but I kept my word and spent an hour before the exam putting one leg in front of the other. And then I aced the exam.

Here is the email I received a couple of days later:

Composers, writers, painters, academics, and politicians favour long walks.

From Virginia Woolf, who loved an excuse to saunter the streets of London, to Pyotr Tchaikovsky who considered his daily two-hour walk essential to health, to Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that “valuable thoughts” are conceived only by walking, the greats walked.

The list goes on. Aristotle, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Søren Kierkegaard, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Steve Jobs were known for their roaming, sauntering, and even brisk trotting.

Contemporary thinkers such as Nassim Taleb and Rebecca Solnit laud the effects of walking on the mind.

But is there an actual link between walking in creativity?

Yes. In 2014, Stanford researchers published a study directly linking the act of walking to creativity.

Researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz conducted four different experiments in which they required study participants to generate ideas. Oppezzo and Schwartz changed only the setting and whether a participant was stationary or moving.

Participants were tasked with generating ideas while sitting inside, sitting outside, sitting in a wheelchair while being pushed outside, walking inside on a treadmill, and while walking outside.

Oppezzo and Schwartz found that walking opened up “the free flow of ideas” and increased creative output. Watch Oppezzo’s TED talk below for a summary of one of the experiments conducted for the study:

So, if you’re getting stuck in the midst of a creative project, try going for a long walk. Note that “creative project” need not be limited to activities such as writing or painting. Starting a business or crafting an admissions essay is a creative endeavor. Even if you are simply trying to process a problem in your personal life, consider literally walking through it.

When I walk, I find that whatever I am mulling over sets the pace at which I move. If my thoughts are stagnating, I may trudge along. If I am picking apart an exciting idea, I may be practically running to keep up with my thoughts.

In conclusion

This summer, get outside! Walk through your thoughts; hike up to the solution of a pesky problem; jog alongside your ideas.

Oh, and if you’re walking in the mountains, watch out for bears.

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