I typically walk to work, but on a rainy morning last week, I took the subway instead. I live about a mile from my office, so when the weather permits, I grab my headphones, turn on a playlist, (I’ve been on a Lady Gaga kick since seeing A Star is Born) and start walking. Although the full trip is only 20 minutes, my walk completely sets the tone for my morning — and when I skip it, the rest of the day feels like it’s missing a beat.
According to Eugene Quinn, an urban explorer who gives guided tours through Vienna, what I experience every morning is my own version of what he calls an “intentional walk.” In Quinn’s TEDTalk, “Want Creativity? Then WALK On the Wild Side,” he talks about using mindful walking as a way to combat the over-stimulated, “always-on” culture of our everyday lives. “It might seem like the simplest act in the world, but walkers are different,” he says. “If you choose to walk with a strategy, you can better develop your productivity and creativity.”
Quinn says taking a daily intentional walk can help you separate yourself from your daily stresses, and even prompt your brain to think in different ways. “Aristotle took his students on walks through Athens, and Charles Dickens walked around London at night when writing his books,” he points out. Quinn even adds that Steve Jobs was known to take regular walking meetings (which my co-worker tried for 32 days, and swears it transformed her workday.)
“Theory has been developed that restoration occurs during time spent in nature,” explains Nevin Harper, Ph.D., associate professor at University of Victoria and co-author of Nature-Based Therapy, out this summer. “Spending time outdoors contributes to engagement across domains — physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.”
According to Harper, the act of taking any amount of time away from your regular to-do’s to simply stroll outside can not only spark creativity, but can help better focus your attention, and help you feel at ease with the demands of your day. “Restoration theories suggest that ‘time away’ from that stress or regular daily grind can assist in reducing the burden of directed attention,” he explains. “Being in nature, and practicing mindfulness, can bring heightened awareness to one’s ability to self-regulate and better handle the demands of today’s highly urbanized and technologically crazy world.”
Harper also acknowledges the reality that we don’t all have the privilege of spending abundant time outdoors — and in many cases, it can be difficult to even find 20 minutes during the day to spare. “Time is the key asset most of us don’t have, or respect when we do,” he points out. But Harper says that even if you can only find a couple minutes in your day, it’s still possible to reap the benefits of intentional walking without carving out a significant amount of time to do so. Here are three easy ways to fit a mindful walk into your day:
Be creative about your commute
Although we don’t all have the luxury of walking to and from work, Harper argues it’s worth taking the extra time to fit nature into your commute, even if that means getting creative. “Choices can be made to park near and walk through parks or natural spaces,” he points out. And if you’re too crunched for time in the morning, consider inviting a co-worker to sit outdoors during your lunch break once a week, or suggest walking through the hallways during a meeting instead of sitting in the conference room.
Use your surroundings as reminders
We set a daily alarm on our phones to wake us up on time, and we use online calendars to remind us when our meetings are coming up — so why don’t we use nature to remind us to get outdoors? “Try shifting the orientation of your desk to face the window, so you can look at nature,” Harper suggests. “Or bring nature into the office via plants, posters, and even screensavers.” Harper says we shouldn’t see this as a replacement for a walk outside, but rather a way to build on our mindful nature contact, and inspire us to get outdoors when we can.
Move your practice outside
If walking meetings don’t work in your profession, Harper says there are other ways of moving parts of your workday outside. For example, “Teachers can occasionally teach outside to incorporate experiential learning activities in nature if possible,” he says. And if the corporate structures of your workplace simply don’t allow for outdoor exercises, do your best to walk around indoors, as Harper says any sort of movement in a different environment can help ignite a sense of awareness in our minds. “Awareness is the key ingredient we are after,” he says.