How Taking a Walking Break Can Help You Think

Wellness entrepreneur Rebecca Thomas says walking outdoors during work hours is not only good exercise, but can help us unlock problem-solving powers. And science backs her up.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

woman changing into walking shoes

Wellness entrepreneur Rebecca Thomas said she keeps her walking shoes by the door so she can pop outside for a mind-freeing walk during the work day.

When we asked respondents to our April Business Events Recovery Dashboard to tell us what they had done during the pandemic to manage stress, their answers ranged from medication to meditation, to setting boundaries, reading about self-care, getting enough sleep, and the support of family, friends, and colleagues. But one response stood out for the number of times that it was mentioned: taking walks — and, in particular, walking outdoors.

That comes as no surprise to entrepreneur Rebecca Thomas, a former restaurateur, and the Richmond, Virginia–based founder of a business called Not Another Diet. Thomas sums up her work as “teaching people what it means to take good care of yourself.” It’s not a small matter, she adds. “Most of us are encouraged to let all of the demands of the world run us over and to think about what we need on the margins.”

Walking is one of her recommended modes of self-care, she said. “Honestly, I think of walking as a spiritual practice and a thinking tool — it just so happened to have walked me into a life of fitness, but that’s incidental.”

“We live with a lot of bad ideas,” Thomas told Convene, and one of them is that you sit at a desk to produce your best work — “‘Sit there and don’t get up!’ I don’t have a problem with completing your work, but I do have a problem with chaining yourself to your desk. My best work is a hybrid.

“I often pull away from my laptop, get up and put my walking shoes on — which are always by the door — and go walk,” taking along her phone or a small notebook to take notes, she said. “In the act of walking, in and of itself, and being outside, something happens, where your brain is now free to process more difficult questions and to come up with solutions. I feel like walking is what facilitates the dialogue with myself — it actually unlocks my thinking. I sometimes don’t even think about it as exercise; it’s an extension of work. You’re allowing yourself to process thoughts in a different capacity.”

I don’t have a problem with completing your work, but I do have a problem with chaining yourself to your desk. My best work is a hybrid. I often get up and put my walking shoes on.”

Rebecca Thomas, founder of Not Another Diet

Research backs Thomas up. “Moderate-intensity exercise, practiced for a moderate length of time, improves your ability to think both during and immediately after the activity,” Annie Murphy Paul wrote in The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain.

Paul listed positive changes, including increased focus, greater verbal and cognitive fluency, enhanced problem-solving and decision-making ability, and improved memory. The flexibility of working from home may have been conducive to walking, but 60 percent of professionals who have returned to the office say they are motivated to continue carving out time for walks during the workweek, according to a story by Digiday Media.

Thomas has two tips to make taking a walk a consistent practice. One is to know and pay attention to your own energy and stress levels and arrange your schedule so that you can take a break at an optimum time to refresh your thinking or to manage stress. The second is to keep your walking shoes handy and keep your walks simple. “We are constantly pushed into this idea of more, more, more, more — make it harder, work hard, try hard,” she said. “And there are times when that’s appropriate. But not as a way to build a movement practice. That’s just not how it’s done. It’s done from a place that feels good to you and nurtures you.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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