Why the most famous people in history took long walks

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We owe a lot to the Romans—roads, aqueducts, democracy, concrete, even calendars—suffice it to say, we’ve gained a lot from them. How in the world were they such a productive culture?

One little-known fact about Romans is that one of their most popular leisure activities was strolling, or, as they called it, ambulatio. Around the time of Cicero, it became hugely popular for intellectuals to take long leisurely walks to stimulate the mind.

Some of history’s greatest minds proved the effectiveness of these strolls, from creatives like Wordsworth and Beethoven, to scientists like Darwin and Freud. It looks as though the Romans caught on to a productivity hack that science was only able to explain two thousand years later. 

We took a deep dive into the value that five of the greatest figures in history derived from their daily strolls. We found that this seemingly banal activity can have many different purposes—from stimulating creativity, to calming our nerves, to preventing terrible diseases. Here’s how these great minds benefited from their long walks. 

Friedrich Nietzsche

nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche is known as one of Western culture’s most influential philosophers. And he did much more than just philosophize. He was also an accomplished classical scholar, professor, poet and avid author. His secret? You guessed it— walking.

Nietzsche once wrote that “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” While this might sound like an exaggeration, he considered walking a necessary pre-condition for his writing. Every day at 11 in the morning, he would set off on a two-hour walk with his notebook. Whenever a brilliant thought came upon him—which happened often— he would pause and make a note of it.

Walk at a LEISURELY pace to be creative

A 2014 Stanford study confirmed Nietzsche’s suspicions when scientists Oppezzo and Schwartz revealed that walking boosts creativity by 60%.  

They measured this through two different tests. In a divergent thinking test, they gave participants an object and asked them to come up with all the possible use-cases (e.g. a “tire” can be used as a swing, a hula-hoop, a pinky ring for a giant, etc.) In the second test, they asked participants to come up with analogies. Results confirmed Oppezzo and Schwartz’s hypothesis that walking at a comfortable pace has a huge impact on creativity.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Pyotr_Ilyich_Tchaikovsky

After Tchaikovsky moved to a quiet village outside Moscow, he sat down to work on his music every morning—but never before his morning walk. Then he took another right after lunch. 

He got so preoccupied with these walks that he became convinced he needed to walk two hours a day to stay healthy. His brother once wrote that, “his observance of this rule was pedantic and superstitious, as though if he returned five minutes early he would fall ill.” It was after these long walks, however, that Tchaikovsky would start composing his pieces.

While many of his friends thought he was crazy for insisting on taking these walks even in severe weather,  he was on to something. 

Walk daily to stay healthy

Walking for at least twenty minutes a day keeps your muscles and bones strong, and improves your coordination. But Tchaikovsky reaped a different benefit from exercise—mental health. Exercising on a regular basis gives you more mental energy and keeps your mind sharp. 

Walking has preventive health benefits as well. Walking for just half an hour a day reduces the risk of stroke by 27 percent, and cuts the risk of diabetes by 60 percent. Oh, and you’ll add seven years to your lifespan.

Albert Einstein

Albert_Einstein_Head

We’re all familiar with the theoretical physicist who helped shape science as we know it today. Not only is Einstein the father of modern physics, but he was also a prolific writer of non-scientific work. 

Einstein often felt like he needed to take a long walk on the beach to introspect and work out complex problems in his head. This is one idea he didn’t come up with on his own—doctors in the late 18th century used to recommend living by the beach to improve overall health.

Walk on the beach to reflect

Those 18th century doctors were right. Based on a study that observed how 2,750 participants interacted with their environment, researchers found that walking by the oceanside inspired positive emotions.

The reason for this might have something to do with evolution. Dr. Michael Merzenich, a University of California San Francisco neuroscience professor, explains that the ocean makes people naturally feel safe. He explains that our natural need for water makes us feel comfortable in its presence.

As Einstein observed, the calming effect of the ocean makes a walk on the beach the perfect opportunity for self-reflection.

Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens is known for his attention to detail in his lengthy novels. A lesser known fact is how Dickens got to know London inside and out—twenty-mile-long speed walks in the middle of the night. 

His walks served him for more than data-gathering. Dickens claimed that writing didn’t come easy to him and it put him under immense stress. He would go on five-hour-long walks to relieve this anxiety. His walks grew so long that his friends thought he was mentally ill.

Walk briskly to de-stress

When you walk briskly, it releases endorphins which act as natural sedatives and minimize the feeling of pain. Enough of this endorphin release also helps you sleep better, reducing stress in the long term.

A more recent study showed that walking in an urban environment helps some people release anxiety. They found that people with a higher level of neuroticism feel more calm in a busy environment. People feel most relaxed in environments that suited their personalities. 

Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs, despite his incredible reputation, was one of the most-spotted celebrities in Palo Alto, where he was always walking while engaged in a deep conversation. Jobs found that his meetings away from the office helped him concentrate on the meeting, and nothing else. 

Walk to talk

Leaving the office helps you get away from people, emails and other distractions. Separate yourself from the high-stress work environment to become more engaged and focused on the conversations. Not to mention, employees tend to be more honest during these types of walks. 

Another benefit to these kind of walks is the atmosphere. A Journal of Consumer Research experiment revealed that people tend to be more focused in an environment with ambient noises such as traffic sounds, distant construction sounds or cafeteria chatter. So if your quiet office isn’t the right place for a meeting, take it outside.

Walk the walk

Perhaps the secret behind the productivity of these brilliant minds is a super simple solution. There are so many mental and physical benefits to taking a short, twenty-minute walk every day, that you’d be cheating yourself if you stay seated at your desk all day, squandering that creative potential. 
Something as simple as getting up and going for a walk might just release your inner genius. So if you’re looking to get those creative juices flowing and improve your overall well-being, make like the thinking experts, and walk.

  • Walking has tremendous benefits for both physical and mental well being. What I have to try to start doing is “grazing” food during the day “around” my lunch time and use the lunch time for the walk! I’ll have to #ScribblePost a reminder…

    • 🙂 sounds like a good idea although eating well is also an important part of the day!

  • Jenette Clay

    So Paul, I love this article, I’m reading it again for motivation. I love to walk, but I feel guilty fitting the time in because of so many other things I “should” be doing…and I’m trying to get over that hurdle.

    I’m curious, did this article come out of what you are doing or what you want to be doing. Sometimes I write motivational posts to motivate myself. 🙂

    My dad walks first thing every morning (he’ll be 70 this year, and going strong). He often photographs the flowers he sees and sends them to me. He still works full time… not sure that he has retirement in his sights yet.

    Have a great day. I’m leaving this tab open, because I’m going to keep it in my face until I get around to it, because the truth is, I love to walk and I handle life much better when I make time for it.

    • Hi Jenette, cudos to your dad! I definitely need more exercise in my life, so looking at the importance placed on exercise by some great thinkers of the past is definitely motivating. Having said that, we do frequently ‘walk and talk’ at ScribblePost i.e. go for a walk outstide instead of sitting in a meeting room. Gets the blood flowing, and offers a healthy change of scenery. It also can help with the post-lunch lull!

      • Jenette Clay

        I love that idea.

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  • Stefan

    Interesting article… How does the smartphone affect the positives of walking?

    • The “smart”phone makes Stupid people!

  • “Before, I wandered as a diversion. Now I wander seriously and sit and read as a diversion.”
    ― Walker Percy (1916-1990)