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The leadership benefits of taking a walk

Recently, a member of my team asked if they could sign off a bit early to go for a bike ride, “now that it gets dark so early." The answer was an easy yes.

Now more than ever, we’ve been hearing from leaders, HR professionals, and employees alike about the importance of leaders protecting their own energy and managing burnout and fatigue. Too often as employees, leaders, parents, friends, and partners, we deprioritize activities that bring us joy, help us to connect with each other, and/or improve our physical fitness.

We are too tired to go to game night. We are too tired to go to the gym. We can end up in a cycle where we are so focused on output that we are not intentionally feeding our own energy — filling up our cups, so to speak.

Although skipping the gym or ditching your lunchtime walk might seem to be a strategic short-term decision, as the acclaimed Stephen Covey wrote in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most of us think we don’t have enough time to exercise. What a distorted paradigm! We don’t have time not to."[1]

One of the best things we can do for our minds, our bodies, and our leadership is to take a walk. This advice goes back to the fourth century B.C.: The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates is often attributed as saying that walking is "man’s best medicine.” More than 2,000 years later, we have the technology to prove this right.

So what are the benefits of taking a walk?

Walking enhances our creativity.

By now, most of us have seen posts on LinkedIn that show brain activity before and after exercise. The “after” photo is aglow with colors. Even to a nonmedical professional, it's clear that the after-walking version is preferable. Though those images may not be properly cited in all cases, the good news is that studies have shown, time and again, that even short walks do improve creativity and idea generation.

A series of experiments, for instance, by researchers at Stanford University in 2014 found that walking "substantially enhanced creativity.” Results demonstrated that 81%, 88%, and 100% of participants displayed more cognitive flexibility and creativity after a walk (as opposed to sitting).[2]

This study is one of many over the years that concludes that when we activate our bodies, we tend to activate our minds as well. What does this mean for our ability to lead or effectively contribute to an organization or your family? It means we need to move. We need to reframe exercise as a nice-to-have to a critical driver of creativity and problem-solving for the many roles we all assume on a daily basis. Whether a midafternoon walk to get away from your desk or an after-dinner family walk around the neighborhood, it is critical that we think intentionally about ways to move.

Walking supports our physical fitness.

Many of us do not associate our physical fitness with our ability to perform the duties of our job or those in our family or community. However, living an active lifestyle and working to maintain fitness levels throughout the course of one’s life is imperative. If we ignore our health in service of our careers or even our families, critical or acute health complications can catch up to us.

Therefore, making physical fitness part of a daily routine not only increases creativity but also supports our ability to be contributing members of a team. Some additional health benefits of daily exercise, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, include:

  • Lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Lower risk of hypertension.
  • Lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.
  • Improved sleep.
  • Reduced anxiety.
  • Reduced risk of depression. [3]

The more we care for ourselves, the more we can care for others, our jobs, and our community. Taking time for exercise is not selfish. It is an investment in the future.

Walking helps manage stress and improves our mood.

We’ve all heard of the runner's high, the rush that runners feel after finishing their daily run. Exercise releases such neurotransmitters in the brain as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are linked to feelings of satisfaction and motivation.[4] For these reasons, exercise is also a powerful stress management technique.

The American Institute of Stress reported on a study that found that 76% of survey respondents agreed that “workplace stress affects their mental health and have experienced burnout.”[5] Walking is a simple (and free) way to help reduce these negative feelings of stress. The next time you get an aggravating email or leave a meeting that should have been an email, go for a 10-minute walk to clear your head and put things into perspective.

The leadership benefits of taking a walk

BONUS: Walking outside has further benefits.

Finally, there are real benefits to exercising and spending time in the sunlight, which can be a challenge during the winter months when the days are shorter. Sunlight is critical in maintaining your body’s internal clock; for that reason, experts tend to recommend sunlight in the morning to help promote sleep quality in the evening.

Sunlight is also a great source of vitamin D, which can help regulate blood pressure, support bone and muscle health, and regulate your immune system.[6] So try to schedule your walk in the morning — maybe even before work with a cup of coffee, or at lunch to help digest your meal.

Are you ready to be more strategic? To sleep better? To improve your mood? Go for a walk. During the day. And encourage your team to do the same.

                                                                     * * *

Sources: 

[1] Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Switzerland, Free Press, 2004, p. 289.

[2] Oppezzo, Marily and Daniel L. Schwartz. "Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, vol. 40, no. 4, 2014, pp. 1142-1152.

[3] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.

[4] Lin TW, Kuo YM. "Exercise benefits brain function: the monoamine connection." Brain Sciences, vol. 3, no. 1, January 11, 2013, pp. 39-53.

[5] American Institute of Stress. "Workplace Stress." The American Institute of Stress, https://www.stress.org/workplace-stress. Accessed 19 December 2023.

[6] Hall, Kara-Marie. "6 Ways Sunlight Can Benefit Your Health." GoodRx Health, https://www.goodrx.com/health-topic/environmental/benefits-of-sunlight. Accessed 19 December 2023.

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