Illustration by Justin Tran

Distributed work

“Sorry, I have a walk scheduled then”


Published on April 09, 2020

If you’re one of the many millions newly adapting to that work-at-home life, there have probably been disruptions to your daily rhythm that are easier to miss than the part where you spend all day in the same place with the same people who might only be yourself.

A short time ago, you may have woken up, had some coffee, and put one foot in front of the other to leave home. You may then have crawled into a car, bus, or some other pile of steel that swept you to the office. And the rest of your workday was probably punctuated by little calendar alerts that urged you to move: leave this conference room for that one, grab your bag and hit the gym, find food to eat. In other words, hey, it’s time to walk again. 

For those physically able, these moments seemed utilitarian: Walking got you from point A to point B in order to do this or that. But we don’t get work done in the same way by teleporting from one virtual room to another. Something’s lost in this translation. 

A lot of studies have gone deep on how essential walking is for our health. Yes, it’s a form of exercise that lowers cholesterol and burns calories, but it also does so while quelling allergies. It elevates your mood, reduces anxiety, and helps you sleep better. And it might even lengthen your lifespan. (Mortal advantages that sound extra good about now). But walking isn’t just important because it helps keep our bodies in check. Walking feeds our minds, too, and maybe something deeper.

Your brain on walking

In yet another study, researchers at UC Irvine took a magnifying glass to the connection between walking and divergent thinking. In psychology, divergent thinking refers to the process of your mind flipping through novel ideas that make sense within a given context. For instance, every time you backspace and retype a caption on Instagram or brainstorm approaches to a problem in a meeting, you’re thinking divergently. Put plainly, this type of thinking is what we often call creativity even though “non-creative” jobs require it all the time.

For the study, participants were asked to come up with different uses for everyday objects like toothbrushes or bricks, which forced them to think about the potential of an everyday object outside its intended purpose. Those who’d gone on 20-minute walks outside scored nearly 20% higher than the stationary control.

So what was it about the simple act of walking? Dr. Gloria Mark, a professor who worked on the study, credits that creative boost to stimulation of the mind. “Walking is a form of arousal,” she explains. “And you might say, well, so is watching a YouTube video, but this is a different kind of stimulation. Your entire body is moving through this three-dimensional space, and that space is continually changing as you move.” In other words, when our bodies align with the movement of the world, our minds light up.

On a basic level, this makes sense. When we walk, outdoors specifically, we exit the confines of a relatively controlled space and step into the current of the world. Ambling down a street, we come face to face with the lives of other people—moving bodies and brains who will probably ignore us but could also wave. And a walk in nature shifts our perspective, placing us in the context of a wilder existence. We could look up at branches that spend the day quivering in the sun, down at caterpillars who inch their bodies along the forest floor, or all around to discover the source of a raven’s call. We may also hear a branch snap and become alert to our own safety, in which case we might need to walk even faster or else harness that extra potential for creative thinking. 

When our bodies align with the movement of the world, our minds light up.

Origin of species

In the new book In Praise of Walking (out May 2020), neuroscientist Shane O’Mara suggests moving upright recalls something primal in us. When walking, we hear better, see clearer, react quicker—all perks that would’ve helped us back when we first started walking and danger hung all around us. Regardless of whichever side of the prey-hunter divide we were on, our feet and brain worked together to sustain our lives. “We are not just brains locked in a skull,” O’Mara says. “We are minds in motion—we are cognitively mobile.”

Of course, this connection is easy to forget. We mostly walk to get places. While our legs are moving one way, our minds are often racing somewhere else, texting friends or reading articles to pass the time. For the better part of the day, our bodies just hang places while we live out life in our head. If our bodies could talk, they might say a mobile, biped design wasn’t intended for all this sitting—but then again maybe they do talk. Maybe every time we work a couple hours straight and our lower back spasms, it’s our body tapping our skull reminding us it’s there, that we’re not machines. We’re human. 

Take back your commute time

In this moment we’re in, walks are harder to come by. They require intention. They require planning. They require six feet of distance from any other soul. But they’re still allowed for those of presumed health. And while many of us are technically working from home, some of the most important work might still be done outside.

A lot of really great thinkers—people whose jobs today would probably have required hunching over a laptop and peering into a screen—have extolled the profound benefits of a good old walk. Virginia Woolf called her solo strolls through London her “greatest rest.” Nietzsche said he didn’t trust an idea that wasn’t born “to the accompaniment of free bodily motion,” while Kierkegaard considered walking to be our most powerful cure: “I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it”—a somewhat big statement coming from the guy credited with fathering existentialism. And for the Transcendentalists, walking was fully sacred. Emerson called it “the consolation of mortal men,” adding that “no pursuit had more breath of immortality in it.” Thoreau went so far as to say he felt he’d “some sin to atone for” when he didn’t walk four hours a day.

Most of us don’t have four hours a day to block out for walking, nor is that a luxury those of us sheltering in place are really being offered. But do we have some amount of time in our calendars we can set aside, if not in the pursuit of immortality to at least retain our sanity? It’s why governments have made special dispensation for walks: Everybody knows they’re good for us.

This is something we recognize intuitively. Sometimes without even thinking about it, we walk—when we’re stressed, when we’re angry, when we have thoughts or feelings that are difficult to work through. On two feet, things seem easier to manage—things tend to move. And, more than ever, we could use a little help there.

One of the many disadvantages of the work-from-home-without-much-notice model is that routines are blown to pieces. But clean slates are also great for new rituals, and digital shared calendars were designed to maintain habits. Why not schedule a 30-minute daily block for a walk—not the kind where you look down at your phone and use your peripheral vision to avoid collisions, but a real-deal, heads-up wander where your mind meets up with your body and the world. Make it daily, maybe even immovable, and set it as public so people know it’s important and are encouraged to do the same.

Think of it as your anti-commute from your home—a reclamation of the time you used to spend clearing your mind’s deck in the mornings before all this mess. Think of it as exercise, therapy, or a creative recharge, because science tells us it is all three. But you can also just think of it as your right as a willing and able person who’s trying to make sense of all this insanity. That would be a totally human response.