How Taking A 20-Minute Walk Every Day Transformed My Approach To Work

Here's what happened when we challenged ourselves to step away from our desks and get out for a while.

If you’re like most Americans, you suffer from the physical, emotional, and mental epidemic that the scientific community calls "sitting disease."

But unlike many other illnesses that require a team of doctors, the cure is in our own hands—or feet, rather—and all we have to do is take a walk.

Last week we challenged readers, and ourselves, to restore some energy, focus, and creativity by taking either a 20-minute lunchtime walk or two 15-minute mid-morning and mid-afternoon walks each day.

Here’s what happened when we put this advice to the test.

As with any challenge, we faced some obstacles and pain-points on the road to restoration.

Fast Company's executive editor Noah Robischon took on the challenge by clearing space in his calendar every day during the afternoon lull. He even thought of some nearby walking routes he could take on his daily excursion. But his good intentions weren’t enough to stand up to life’s daily distractions.

Every day something came up—a phone call, an un-planned meeting, the cranberry and chocolate trail mix in my middle drawer. It was difficult to wave away these interruptions (especially the trail mix) by saying, 'Sorry, but I've scheduled an important walk right now.'

While reporting my progress for an article at the end of the week gave me the extra push to make sure it was a priority every day, I also found myself tempted by other tasks and distractions to put off my daily walk. Looming deadlines have a way of making a walk in the park seem inconsequential.

Finding green spaces in Manhattan's Financial District was also a little challenging for me at first. I initially assumed I could simply step outside the office, walk around a little, and boom—green space. This is what the walk around Fast Company's offices actually looks like:

Photo: Rachel Gillett for Fast Company

But after a little wandering I came across several urban oases such as the nearby Irish Hunger Memorial. The view was both breathtaking and inspirational:

Photo: Flickr user Mike Boucher

Here’s what we accomplished on our walks:

A Better Mood

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh say that taking a walk through green spaces can lessen your brain fatigue, and scientists have long found that exposure to the sun can alleviate feelings of sluggishness and boost productivity. I found this to be absolutely true in my experience.

On Monday I was feeling anxious and on Wednesday I felt sluggish from the uphill battle of getting over the midweek hump. Maybe it’s because our office is an icebox, and, as we know, this causes some serious thermal stress, but the moment I stepped outside I felt rejuvenated.

Fast Company's leadership editor Kathleen Davis had similar feelings when she left the office for a walk this week.

I wish I could say I came up with some groundbreaking creative ideas but I mostly just thought of a long list of things I needed to do. Maybe if I did it more regularly or for a longer period of time my mind would wander more. I did feel a little refreshed when I returned to my desk though.

Replenished Focus

As we all know from our previous habit challenge, our energy and focus wax and wane throughout the day and we become more prone to distractions. Researchers found that if we take a 15-minute walk each time we feel the draw to check Facebook, which, though it may seem like a work break, still siphons a great deal of your mental vigor, we’ll be better able to refocus after the break. And I couldn’t agree more.

A quick jaunt around the office allowed me to let my mind wander and invigorated my focus.

More Creativity

My favorite perk of this entire challenge was what it did for my creativity and freethinking. Compared to sitting, scientists say that any form of walking could increase creative thinking by about 60%. So to make sure I didn’t waste any of this potential, I decided to bring a notebook and pen with me on my walks.

I found that almost the instant I started moving all manner of thoughts began rushing around my head. Some of them were work-related, some of them were pretty random, but the point is there were a lot more now than when I was sitting in front of my computer screen.

Though Robischon admits he wasn’t able to complete the challenge as intended, he still gets in a walk several times a week on his way to and from work. He says this gives him time to catch up on some of the things he doesn’t regularly have time for, but often the creative thinking that strikes can get in the way.

The morning walk gives me time to catch up on podcasts or listen to music and get my mind organized for the day ahead. It's also when some of my best creative thinking happens, even if it means I have to go back and replay the podcasts that I stopped paying attention to.

After the first day of walking, I wondered if there was a way I could funnel those ideas into something constructive. For the rest of the week I decided to research an aspect of work that required a little creative thinking just before my 20-minute walk and use my walking time to mull it over.

By focusing on a problem that needed solving and then letting my mind wander, I was able to come up with different angles for stories I was writing, better headlines, and even some simple but effective solutions to work-life problems.

A Change Of Pace

Reader Mike F. Ziethlow, who works nights as an executive producer, uses his walks for the peace and quiet, and since he makes his own hours, his "mid-afternoon" break actually happens after midnight.

While he says he may be missing out on the benefits of getting some sun, he says he most enjoys the calming effect his walks have. Ziethlow simply sets a 15-minute timer on his phone, starts walking in any direction through the outskirts of Las Vegas, and without having to keep an eye on the time, he just turns around when the timer beeps.

I like to walk until my mind is on a different subject than what it was on when I first began the walk. Sometimes this means I extend the walk to an hour until my mind is clear.

Fast Company staff writer Alice Truong also supplemented her odd work hours with a walk this week. Our West Coast news hound says she sometimes cracks open her laptop at 7 a.m. and works tirelessly until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. "I count those days as productive, but I often feel miserable from sitting in one place and/or not eating until the last remaining hours of the day," she says.

This week Truong used the habit challenge as a way to break up her day. She made an effort to walk leisurely from one work spot, like her home or cafe, to another, like a park bench. "When I'm settled into the new spot, my head feels lighter than it did prior, and the change of location lets me pick up where I left off with a fresh set of eyes," Truong says.

The Verdict: I am going to keep this habit up by taking at least one 20-minute walk a day and peppering in some quick jaunts when I start to burn out. While taking frequent breaks from our desks is essential to our well-being, I really believe that if we want to capitalize on our walks, we should take them when we need them most. The next time you have a problem, my advice is to do some research first and arm yourself with pondering material, then grab a pen and notepad and get out.

And for those of you who find the whole idea too time-consuming, take Robischon’s lead and resolve yourself to start smaller: Try taking a 10-minute walk and expand from there as the habit takes hold.

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[Photo: Flickr user Thomas Leuthard]

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16 Comments

  • If your job requires creative problem solving, do this! A walk around the block can do wonders. My best breakthroughs come when I'm walking, driving, or in the shower. Not when I'm 'working.'

  • My boss and I used to escape from the office every so often for a walking working meeting when we really needed to clear our minds and focus on hard issues at hand. I found it to be extremely productive and wish I'd made the time to do that with my own team.

  • Amy Hasha Edelen

    Confusing brain spinning with creative thought. Leave the notepad and pen and keeping walking til you break through!

  • Daniel Ray

    I do this at least once every day and sometimes more. I have a stupid nickname for it "blockbuster" ... as in "I can't figure this out, I don't want to make this call, I can't find that thing, I'm ready to explode, I'm ready to crash, I feel smart, I feel dumb ... I need a blockbuster"... a thing that will bust through whatever's blocking my mental path. My walks clear the blocks, whatever they are and if they don't... well then I got a little exercise.

    As a freelance photographer, my life is all about time management, productivity and efficiency, which will make my friends laugh when they know I'm at a movie during the day midweek... or staring at magazines in Barnes and Nobel... or having lunch at the airport (my favorite place to eat even when I'm not traveling). The truth that every business owner knows is that we never have days off... just times off. I believe it's more important to enjoy life by working less each day (by a little) and work more days since there's nothing I don'

  • Gabriella Kortsch Phd

    If you deliberately have a 'mindfulness walk', existing neural pathways begin to change & new ones related to well-being get formed. Making the walk 'mindful': find something beautiful to see/hear: the blue sky, a cloud, the leaves of a tree, a dog, a laughing child, birdsong. Then focus on its beauty for a moment, filling yourself with it, then feel gratitude for such beauty in your life just now & check if your solar plexus has loosened at bit (if it was tight before) & go on to the next beautiful thing & repeat the process. Doing this for 15 min you begin to take charge of your thoughts & your self-talk & this gives you a sense of inner well-being. You'll find as you get to the end of the walk, especially while you're new to it, you'll have remembered to see/hear 3-5 beautiful things, but then your thoughts took over & you forgot about beauty & gratitude. Practicing the walk daily changes that, eventually bringing you inner well-being.

  • Ted Nolan

    Years ago, I hung a punching bag in my company's little courtyard for all to use. Really going at it for only five minutes is better than any walk. The bag needs regular replacement since I, and my employees, hit it with batons and ball bats.

  • Great article. Wonderful - or should I say wanderful - to see you tapping into the wisdom of the streets. It's a simple idea but we're finding it so powerful with the folk over here in UK we've set up a non-profit to help turn the kind of stroll you talk about in the article into a powerful - and totally free - tool for personal and professional development. It's called Street Wisdom http://www.streetwisdom.org and it's rocking. The freeware model means it's being taken up not only all over UK but there have also been events in Germany, Holland, Italy, Austria even, we understand Libya. It's coming soon to US with events popping up in SF and Washington. Please take a look. We'd be happy to tell you more. And we'll tweet out your article. Thanks

  • I've been trying to do that 4-5 per week at a nearby mall, but i still seem to have things get in the way. Scheduling it, works, but only sometimes. I need to convince myself that it's top priority. When I do get those walks in, it makes a big difference to my day! @gadgetgreg http://www.gadgetguy.ca

  • I tried walking every day at lunch. This works great when the outside temps are less than 85. When it's more than 85, I sweat too much and then when I get back to the office I'm so cold I shiver all afternoon and I don't think I smell good either.

  • The photos outside Fast Company's office are hilarious. I'm sure most New Yorkers or city dwellers can relate to that. Perhaps that's also why it's tempting to stay inside, to escape the chaos outside.

  • Jacob Kwabena Smith

    We've been taking UpTo team walks about once a week and absolutely love it. Great for the reasons mentioned and also for team-building!

  • I used to run almost every morning, which I found for many years had a similar effect, but as I got older (I'm now 52) I found that the increasing aches and pains that came with running became a distraction. Now I walk almost an hour a day — either to or from work, or partway in both directions — and I have found it to be more invigorating and stimulating than running ever had been for me. Perhaps there's something about the natural pace of walking that triggers the brain to function optimally?

  • Try riding a bike. It's even better. I'm 55 and was a runner for years. Now I ride and I wake up ache free every day. Lost that extra weight effortlessly, too!

  • In fact I just started using Citibike this week for half of my commute! Biking in NYC is definitely a little stressful though, at least on the streets.