Twenty-three years ago, I was fatigued, fed up and seriously unfit.
With nothing but an impending 40th birthday and a bottomless washing basket to look forward to, I started wondering: is this all there is?
Then, out of the blue, an acquaintance invited me on a hiking expedition to remote South America. It wasn’t just any old hike, it was climbing Mount Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Southern Hemisphere. Impulsively, surprising even myself, I agreed. I’m a former athlete, so how hard could it be?
The mountain climb was a big, fat fail. I didn’t get to the top. But the experience transformed my life. I discovered walking has the capacity to improve mental and physical health, as well as boost creativity, innovation and teamwork.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the power of walking would help me leave my job as a radio producer, start a wildly successful business and raise more than US$30 million for charity.
Every step of the way – through every challenge, triumph and the messy bits in between – I used walking as my guiding light.
Many leaders grapple with how to motivate staff, drive innovation and foster creativity in the workplace. Smart leaders also want teams who are healthy, happy, motivated and connected, because they know what’s good for their people is good for their business.
A Stanford University study found that a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking.
But you don’t need to build a gym in your office, bring in personal trainers, hire a medical team or force your teams into bootcamp. You just need to get everyone walking.
Business leaders such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg understand the power of walking to drive creativity and innovation. In fact, the gorgeous gardens surrounding Apple’s corporate headquarters, Apple Park, were specifically designed with walking, thinking and talking in mind.
“Taking a long walk was [Steve Jobs’s] preferred way to have a serious conversation,” says Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ biographer. Jobs believed his most creative ideas came when he was walking, and he credits walking with inspiring several of Apple’s most successful innovations, including the IMac G4.
Why walking is good for business
1. Boosts brain power
Walking has been shown to physically alter the brain, improving its plasticity and stimulating the creation of more brain cells while protecting the brain from cognitive impairment. John Medina, neuroscientist and author of the bestseller Brain Rules, says: “The best business meeting would have everyone walking at about 1.8 miles per hour”.
2. Improves concentration
Walking promotes blood flow, increases oxygen intake and elevates energy levels. This leads to improved concentration, alertness, creativity and focus, which in turn can boost productivity.
3. Enhances creative thinking
Walking at work can help enhance creativity and problem-solving abilities, helping you and your staff think more clearly and generate new ideas and solutions. A Stanford University study found that a person’s creative output increased by an average of 60 percent when walking. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said: “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking”.
4. Facilitates communication and collaboration
Walking together promotes informal communication by putting our brains in a more relaxed atmosphere, which creates open conversations and free-flowing thoughts. It helps break down barriers and hierarchies between individuals, teams and departments, providing opportunities for team members to share ideas and perspectives in a non-threatening environment. As a famous Sanskrit Proverb notes: “People who walk together, talk together”.
5. Reduces stress
Walking can help reduce stress levels and improve mental health by releasing endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Researchers found that after a one-hour walk in nature, activity in brain regions involved in stress processing decreases. This is good for business, because it allows your staff to produce their best work in a motivated but calm, focused fashion.
6. Reduces distractions
Walking helps reduce the distractions of sitting behind a desk such as phone calls, emails or interruptions from colleagues. This can help us focus on the conversation and contribute to a more productive and effective discussion.
7. Improves mental health
Walking has been shown to energize the brain and improve mental health by reducing anxiety and depression symptoms, as well as improving overall mood. In turn, this improves performance while reducing the sick leave and presenteeism that costs businesses billions of dollars. Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety at a cost of US$1 trillion per year in lost productivity, according to the World Health Organization.
Walking has been shown to energize the brain and improve mental health.
In Australia, where Coastrek operates, we are working to improve the current status quo, which shows that untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces US$7.2 billion per year – US$3.1 billion in absenteeism, US$4.1 billion in presenteeism and an additional US$97 million in compensation claims, according to a PwC and Beyond Blue report on mental health in the workplace.
8. Boosts immunity
Walking can help boost the immune system by improving circulation and increasing the production of white blood cells, which help fight off infections and diseases. This makes staff more resilient and more resistant to infectious diseases, which enhances performance and reduces sick leave.
9. Improves physical health
Research shows walking just 30 minutes a day can reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, stroke, diabetes, anxiety, depression, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, dementia and stress by up to 50 percent. Healthy employees tend to be more productive and effective, take less sick leave and have reduced presenteeism than unhealthy employees.
At this point, you might be thinking, “This all sounds great, but I can hardly get my team to take a lunch break, let alone go for a walk.”
I hear you. Even within my team, where we speak of the benefits of walking and hiking as our core mission, it can be hard to motivate people away from their desks. Making walking part of work and embedding a walking culture in your organization requires effort and commitment. But it’s worth it.
How to get started
Lead by example
Start by holding your weekly leadership one-on-one meetings as walkie-talkies. Always circulate an agenda beforehand and follow up with a record of discussion. This is also recommended during the hiring process. Mark Zuckerberg never employed anybody he hadn’t taken for a walk.
Create a culture of walking meetings to replace the coffee chat or the sitting meeting when you’re meeting with one or two others. Ensure staff have time to prepare, so they’re wearing comfortable shoes and have a pre-circulated agenda to keep focused on the issues. Action items or outcomes should be circulated immediately after the meeting to capture the great ideas that unfold.
Encourage group walking
There’s nothing like a group walk to enhance connection, boost communication and unite teams. Organize weekly group or team walks before work, during lunch breaks or after work. This can make walking more enjoyable and social, improves mood, team bonding and helps with accountability. Encourage staff to pop out for a walk if they’re stuck on a problem or need to clear their head when personal issues start affecting their work.
Encourage thought walks
Many great thinkers such as Aristotle, Beethoven, Charles Darwin and Michelangelo credit walking with being responsible for their greatest ideas. Remind your team to take a walk when brainstorming or struggling with a complex idea.
Clear your head
Walking is one of the best ways to clear your head, especially if you can get out into nature, contemplate strategic challenges, eke out complex issues and come up with new answers to old problems. It can also be a great way to cool off after an intense meeting.
Make it easy
Provide maps of local parks, walking routes and green spaces and encourage staff to take thought walks and walkie talkies during work time to brainstorm problems.
Offer incentives such as free entry to local endurance walking events and encourage leaders within your organization to get their teams involved. You can also provide step counters, fitness trackers or even invest in your own corporate walking program.
Create a culture of wellness
Encourage a culture of wellness in the workplace by providing healthy snacks such as a fruit bowl, nuts, seeds, filtered water and herbal tea. Provide periodic health checks, organize walking challenges and promote a healthy work–life balance regularly.
So, leaders, what are you waiting for?
Walking is the best possible way to boost health, productivity, innovation and teamwork in the workplace, which is why walking is more than a magic pill. It’s a superpower.
Di Westaway OAM is the Founder and CEO of Wild Women On Top and Coastrek, Australia’s iconic team hiking challenge, which has raised over US$30.1 million for charity. She was awarded an OAM in 2020 for services to women’s health, fitness and charity services after dedicating a lifetime to these causes. Di has authored two books – Natural Exhilaration and How to Prepare for World Class Treks.