The Single Greatest Habit You Can Build
Today at a Glance
- There is one tool that has been used with near perfect consistency by history's greatest men and women. From artists and inventors to entrepreneurs and athletes, they have all understood the immense power of this one, simple tool: the walk.
- There is a tremendous body of research to support the mental and physical benefits of walking. Improved creativity, improved cardio health, improved memory retention, and many more benefits have all been found in recent, peer-reviewed research.
- The four types of walks to consider implementing: (1) Active walks, (2) Passive "tech free" walks, (3) Morning sunlight walks, and (4) Break walks. Start small and build the habit over time!
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“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and 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." - Søren Kierkegaard
There is one tool that has been used with near perfect consistency by history's greatest men and women. From artists and inventors to entrepreneurs and athletes, they have all understood the immense power of this one, simple tool:
Philosophers have long known the power of the walk. Aristotle founded what became known as the "Peripatetic" school of philosophy—a word that literally translates to "walking" or "given to walking about"—given his propensity to walk while lecturing or discussing with students, mentors, or opponents.
Fortunately, this tool is available to all of us mere mortals—completely free of charge. And while it may not make you into history's next legendary philosopher, it will certainly unlock your mental, physical, and creative potential.
This piece will briefly address the fascinating scientific benefits of walking, provide a "walking playbook" for you to follow, and propose a simple challenge for you to take on between now and year-end.
Why You Need to Walk
"The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow, as if I had given vent to the stream at the lower end and consequently new fountains flowed into it at the upper." - Henry David Thoreau
In his famous biography of Steve Jobs, author Walter Isaacson comments that Jobs believed he did his best creative thinking while walking. He and Jony Ive, Apple's Chief Design Officer, would often pace around the tables in the design room together as they hammered out the finer points of Apple's revolutionary product designs.
As a lasting legacy of Jobs' love of walking, the open, circular design of the new Apple Park was specifically designed to foster long walks and creative bouts.
These insights on the benefits of walking are more than just anecdotes, they are supported by science.
Here is a small sampling of the studies supporting the mental, physical, social, and cognitive benefits of walking:
- Stanford researchers found that walkers performed significantly better on tests measuring creative divergent thinking during and after walks. In fact, walking boosted creative thinking by an average of 60% and the benefits lasted well beyond the walk itself.
- Researchers in Illinois found that children exhibited improved cognitive performance after 20 minutes of walking (vs. 20 minutes of sitting quietly).
- University of Hong Kong researchers showed that walking side-by-side led to deeper feelings of connection, implying that walking meetings may actually create better outcomes.
- Short daily bouts of walking have been shown in various studies to reduce all-cause mortality risk and the incidence of strokes and heart attacks.
- A NeuroImage study in June 2021 showed that daily walking may improve white matter plasticity in older adults, meaning improved memory retention curves.
In a 2016 New York Times article, journalist Gretchen Reynolds commented on a study that compared the impact of long bouts of office sitting with various degrees of standing and walking interventions.
The group that took a 5-minute walk at the top of every hour exhibited the strongest positive response:
"When the workers rose most often, they reported greater happiness, less fatigue and considerably less craving for food than on either of the other days. Their feelings of vigor also tended to increase throughout the day, while they often had plateaued by early afternoon after walking only once in the morning."
The case for walking is abundantly clear—but how can you implement it into your life and routine?
How to Build a Walking Routine
If there is one daily habit that has had the greatest positive impact on my life since I implemented it about a year ago, it is walking. In 2021, I averaged about 2,000 steps per day. In 2022, that figure is closer to 20,000. That 10x increase has unlocked me creatively, spiritually, mentally, and physically—I feel like a completely different person.
To be clear, I have several atypical lifestyle factors that allow me to walk this much—a 6-month-old who only sleeps on walks, a flexible work schedule, and a nice walking neighborhood—but all of you can experience those same benefits with significantly less volume and within the confines of a more "normal" schedule.
There are four types of walks to consider implementing in your routines:
- Active Walks: Active walks are 30-60 minutes and are done at a brisk pace with optional technology. I will often spend my active walks listening to an audiobook or podcast, or thinking about something specific that I want to work through (a problem, writing idea, etc.). Active walks are a light cardio workout and a moderate cognitive workout.
- Passive "Tech-Free" Walks: Passive walks are "atelic" activities (meaning they are done with no goal in mind). These walks are 30-60 minutes and are done at a slow, leisurely pace with no technology. The mind should be free to wander. Allow your ideas to mingle. I'd suggest bringing a little pocket notebook to log anything interesting that comes into your head (it will happen!).
- Morning Sunlight Walks: You don't need a fancy morning routine—just go for a 15-20 minute walk. The sunlight, movement, and fresh air have a direct positive impact on your mood, circadian rhythm, metabolism, digestion, and more. Ideally this is a tech-free walk (leave the phone at home and let your mind wander).
- Break Walks: As shown in the NYT article above, short walk breaks have a positive impact on your overall wellness. Take a 5-10 minute walk in between meetings, after a meal, or before an important presentation to harness the power.
As a manageable starting point, everyone should aim to implement Break Walks into their calendar immediately. These have the highest benefit "bang-for-your-buck" relative to the time required—anyone can fit these into their schedule.
Next, think about how you might be able to implement Active Walks, Passive Tech-Free Walks, and Morning Sunlight Walks into your schedule.
For many of you, something like this may work:
- Monday-Friday: Break Walks + Morning Sunlight Walks (optional)
- Saturday: Active Walk (with family / friends)
- Sunday: Passive Tech Free Walk (alone)
The goal should just be to slowly build up your walking habit from wherever you are today. It is a free intervention that will have dramatic positive impacts on your life.
If you are physically able, walking is one of the highest ROI habits you can build.
So what are you waiting for? Get walking.
A Simple Challenge for You
To get everyone started, I want to end with a simple challenge.
For the rest of this month, commit to a daily 15-minute technology-free walk:
- No phone
- No music
- No podcasts
- No articles
- No audiobooks
You can do it with a partner, a friend, a child, or alone. You can talk or do it in silence. Lean into gratitude while you walk.
You can do it whenever it fits into your schedule. It is a simple reset that will change your life. I guarantee it.
If you're interested in joining in, share this on Twitter and tweet a checkmark each time you complete it during the month. I'll see it and add encouragement and accountability!
Even if you don't take on the challenge, after you read this piece, I hope you feel inspired to go for a walk. A small action that just might change your life.