Why you should walk more if you’re a writer

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There are many benefits of walking for writers. Staying in shape is one of them. But becoming more creative is the biggest gain… 

I have a neighbour who often drove her three kids to school. I’m too polite to have told her off for this, but they lived a 10-minute walk from both grade school and high school. What was she thinking? This kind of attitude — as well as the one that sees city officials failing to put sidewalks on all of their streets — makes me crazy.

Walking is one of the best things we can do. This advice is particularly true for writers. Why? Because in order to write, we need to think, first. And thinking at our desks — instead of out in fresh air, while we’re moving our bodies — is almost always a spectacularly bad idea.

When we sit, our brains become leaden. But when we walk, our hearts pump faster and our brains and other organs get more blood and oxygen. Scientists have shown this helps our memories work better and improves our attention.

The gentle exercise of walking also leads to new connections between brain cells, holding at bay the usual decline of brain tissue that comes with age. Even as my hair turns grey, I’m glad to know that I don’t have to listen to contemporary music to keep my brain younger.

Furthermore, walking also has a positive impact on creativity. In 2014, researchers from Stanford published a set of studies designed to measure the way walking changes creativity. When did this idea occur to them? When they were taking a walk, of course. In a series of four experiments, researchers asked 176 college students to complete different tests of creative thinking while either sitting, walking on a treadmill, or wandering through Stanford’s campus.

In one test, for example, volunteers had to come up with unusual uses for everyday objects, such as a button. On average, the students thought of between four and six more creative uses for the objects while they were walking than when they were seated.

Another experiment asked volunteers to think about a metaphor, such as “a budding cocoon,” and come up with a unique but equivalent metaphor. Some 95 per cent of students who went for a walk were able to do so, compared to only 50 per cent of those who never stood up.

Many creative, successful people from history have been inveterate walkers. They include: AristotleBeethovenBruce ChatwinThomas De QuinceyCharles DickensPatrick Leigh FermorErnest HemingwaySteve JobsSoren KierkegaardHenry MillerJohn MuirVladimir NabokovFriedrich NietzscheW.G. SebaldNassim Nicholas TalebHenry David Thoreau,  and William Wordsworth.

Geoff Nicholson, the author of The Lost Art of Walking,  has a few thoughts about the relationship between walking and creativity. “There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together,” he says. “Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively.” 

Where we walk also matters. Historically, I’ve long enjoyed walking on city streets, but my naturalistically inclined husband has always favoured parks or forests. Science shows he’s right. A study from the University of South Carolina demonstrates a cognitive benefit to interacting with nature. Spending time in green spaces such as gardens, parks and forests helps rejuvenate us from the pedestrians, cars, and concrete of busy cities.

When I encourage other people to take their stories for a walk, they often ask me how to make notes. I’ve tried this myself and I have a simple piece of advice: Don’t. It’s awkward and you don’t need to.

You can usually remember the key points of what you want to write. But if the ideas are so profuse (or so important) that you’re concerned you’ll forget them, then dictate a note to yourself in your cellphone. This will allow you to keep walking effortlessly.

Otherwise, keep your cellphone in your pocket. Texting, chatting or even listening to music will disrupt your contemplation and impair your creativity.

The best thing about walking? You can do it almost anywhere and you need almost no gear. Comfortable shoes are essential (make sure they’re lightweight and bendable) and replace them every 500 miles. A warm hat is a good idea if the weather is cold and a sun-protecting one (and sunscreen) if it’s hot.

My favourite tool — because I find it so deeply motivating — is a pedometer. I use a Jawbone device and my friend Eve uses a Fitbit.  Both of them track how many steps we take each day and I usually aim for at least 10,000 steps.

But there’s nothing “magic” about the 10,000 number. Marketers who sold pedometers in Japan in the 1960s used the term manpokei, because they liked the sound of it. It translates to “10,000 steps meter,” and the habit took hold. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends about 7,000 to 8,000 steps a day, which may be more reasonable for you.

Whatever you do, try to walk more. Health benefits aside, it’s one of the best things you can do for your writing.

How much do you walk? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 29/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of the memoir What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.