Several of my friends are writers, and in conversation recently the dreaded “writers’ block” came up. When I asked them to share their best block-busting trick, almost all said it was….. to go for a walk!
So let’s take a look at the benefits of walking for your well-being and for your creativity...
What are the physical benefits of walking?
There are so many benefits that walking can bring you. Walking helps you manage your weight by burning calories, which helps you in maintaining your ideal weight or contributing towards reducing your weight, if that is your goal.
The rate of your weight management will depend on your weight to begin with, the speed you walk, the distance and length of time walking and if you are walking on flat surfaces or varied ground- like hills, uneven surfaces, steps, etc…
Let’s not forget the benefits of walking on your circulatory system, as walking encourages effective blood flow to all parts of your body. Walking at least 20 to 30 minutes a day, five days a week can reduce your risk for coronary heart disease.
Taking a walk after eating helps lower your blood sugar, which can also lower your risk of diabetes.
Walking can also help protect your joints, including your knees and hips. That’s because it helps lubricate the joints and strengthen the muscles that support the joints.
Walking may also reduce your risk for developing a cold or the flu because walking improves your immune system by reducing stress and flooding your body with feel-good chemicals called endorphins - so walking improves your mood too! Walking also increases oxygen flow through the body. It can also generate healthy levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These are the hormones that help elevate energy levels. Next time you feel tired, instead of drinking strong coffee or high sugar caffeinated energy drinks, just try going for a walk and see your energy levels increase.
What are the mental health benefits of walking?
Apart from having positive impacts on your body, walking also has positive impacts on your mind. Walking helps your mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood. Walking makes you feel better, it boosts self-esteem and reduces symptoms of social isolation as you are out and can see other people, even if you don’t interact with them.
Depending on where you walk, you may also see things which you enjoy, such as animals, babies or children, which may also improve your mood. Walking is another way to practice being present, which is also known as mindfulness practice. This simple activity allows you to engage your body and mind. As you walk you observe what is around you - especially if there are new things like a garden that has just been tidied up, the trees in blossom, the smell of fresh cut grass in someone’s garden; all these create new sensations and as a result encourage thoughts that will have a positive effect on you.
You can also try a meditative practice called mindful walking, where you focus on the actual act of walking itself - this is where you take each pace slowly and deliberately, focussing all your attention on the movements you are making and zoning in on how that feels to you. The simple way that you put your foot down, then shift your weight from one leg to the other, and then move forward can be a really interesting exercise. If you are lucky enough to walk on sand or grass, why not take your shoes off, experience the feel of the ground beneath you and really connect with nature. It all sounds so simple but the benefits are significant.
Can walking boost creativity? If so, how does it work?
Walking helps to clear your head and help you think creatively, opening up a free flow of ideas - it’s a simple way to increase creativity and get physical activity at the same time. Creativity flows when you’re in a relaxed state. Your brain does not allow you to be creative in a stressed state. If you’re in a stressed state then you’re in the “flight, fight or freeze” mode so your body prepares for you to take action and run from the perceived danger (e.g. work deadlines etc.). The body answers the stress call by prioritising blood flow to your legs and hands (so that hypothetically you can run or fight).
But this prioritisation moves blood away from the brain and causes us to be less intellectually engaged. So walking is best done in a state of relaxation (or the “rest and digest” mode) - when you’re calm and free of danger then the creative side of you emerges.
When we are relaxed and engaged in an activity, often we can find ourselves in a state of “flow”. This is similar to that utterly absorbed feeling you get when watching a film. “Flow” is a state in which you naturally think creatively and without interference from the usually “chattering” conscious mind. Often when walking you will be absorbed in nature and this can definitely be a bridge to a state of flow, where your creativity can spread its wings.
You might also find that your creativity can be boosted by listening to music as you walk (although if you are crossing roads or negotiating uneven terrain, please be careful!).
How does walking compare to intense exercise? Would that be as effective?
Walking is more effective than intense exercise because you’re not as tired from the exertion. Intense exercise will leave you exhausted and needing to rest and recover. Walking benefits your health just as does intense exercise, but in a gentler way. Also, if you have any injuries or stiffness, gentler exercise like walking will be kinder on your joints, where you can decide what pace works best for you and how long you exercise. Intense exercise generates stress hormones, which is not conducive if you are seeking to focus on your creativity.
How long do you have to be walking in order for creativity to flow?
It’s different for everyone- you’ll slip into it almost unconsciously. One plus point about walking is that you can do it alone or with others, friends, family and even with workmates – perhaps another member of your team who may be working on the same project. You can use the time to keep fit and brainstorm ideas to discuss for an upcoming meeting. A friend of mine has a very successful “walking coaching” business, where she meets her clients for a walk, during which they have a coaching session, which is further evidence of the accepted benefits of walking on creativity.
Are there certain things to look out for on your walk to boost creativity?
Depends where you are and what you can see. If you can be in natural space, like a park, woodland or even a beach, there may be huge varieties of things which may catch your interest. The key things are to be open, alert and interested. By focussing your attention on things that you see, like the gnarled trunk of a tree, the elegant beauty of a late summer rose, the glossy wet pebbles on a beach, you can stimulate your mind to experience things with an intensity that may spark your creative instincts. One thing is certain - creativity can be inspired from anything, and at any time. You just need to be aware, and let it happen! Your state of mind, mood, inspiration and creativity flows just because you’re away from your desk and the office
What happens if you enjoy walking on a treadmill? Will that have the same effect?
Yes and no. Yes in terms of creating movement, no because it’s not a change of environment, with all the opportunities that presents. If you do your walking on a treadmill try to position it in front of a window, and see if you can trick your brain by looking out at nature - look as far as you can see, rather than staring at the wall in your home or at the gym. By expanding your field of view, it expands your imagination and creativity.
Is there anything that could hinder creativity pre-walk? For example, eating high fat, sugary food?
A lot of people take a walk after a large or heavy meal, to “walk it off” and digest. However, this isn’t ideal if you’re looking to be creative and inspired. Blood rushes to the stomach to digest heavy or complex foods, which again takes vital blood flow away from the brain. The brain needs optimum blood flow to function well in creative mode. You can walk before a meal or after a meal, either way you’re benefitting. Walking before a meal allows you to work up an appetite, walking after a meal helps you to burn off some of the calories you have consumed.
Another thing which may impede creativity is not being well hydrated, amazingly just a little bit of dehydration will have a significant effect on your brain’s optimum functioning, so always take a bottle of water with you – or maybe even a flask with a hot drink on a really cold day. Remember the best things to eat before a walk are a light meal, light snacks or a piece of fresh fruit would be an ideal pre-walk fueller. It’s always a good idea to take a snack and some water with you just in case you need a little bit of an energy boost along the way – a piece of fruit is ideal as it can be quickly digested and the energy used.
So, next time you have something to mull over, or some kind of creative block, it’s worth remembering that a walk might just help you find some answers, as well as boosting your potential for creativity.
Juan Carlos is a therapist and author with over 22 years' experience as a diagnostic scientist.
All blog entries are Copyright ©2019-2021 Juan Carlos Gouveia, except quotations and where stated.