One warm spring day in 1955, Emma Gatewood put on her Keds tennis shoes, stuffed a change of clothes and a few other things into a homemade denim backpack and told her children and grandchildren that she was going for a walk. The next time her family heard from her, she had walked 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail alone. She was 67 years old.
As if that weren’t impressive enough, five months after she started walking, Emma Gatewood stood atop Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the endpoint of the 2,050-mile trail. She sang “America the Beautiful”, signed her name in the trail register and, in doing so, officially became the first woman to solo hike the Appalachian Trail.
Although a literal trailblazer in her own right, Emma wasn’t the first person to recognize the therapeutic benefits of a walk. The Greek philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates were firm believers in the connection between walking, talking and thinking. Aristotle was so famous for his walks that when he founded his own school of philosophy, the Peripatetic school, it was named after his habit of “walking about” while lecturing. For Aristotle, walking facilitated talking, and therefore, thinking.
Although neither a philosopher nor an avid hiker, I do believe in the power of a walk, especially now more than ever. This past year, amongst a global pandemic, running my own startup JotForm and homeschooling my children, I often found myself tired, overwhelmed and stressed, like many people. I no longer traveled to the office, or anywhere, for that matter. I spent my days working from home, connected to Slack and email, yet very much disconnected from any feeling of normalcy.
Something needed to change and I reflected on what simple, safe and small thing I could do for myself to feel better. My thoughts drifted back to the crisp, sunny afternoons walking along the Embarcadero near our San Francisco offices with colleagues, discussing ideas for new projects. The memory itself was so relaxing that I knew I had stumbled upon the answer to my problem. I needed to incorporate daily walks back into my routine.
Since walking requires no special equipment, little preparation and can be adjusted to fit the time available in my schedule, it was easier to fit into my day than expected. My plan, initially, was to walk the daily 30 minutes recommended by doctors, but within a few weeks, I was walking up to three miles a day. Of course, there were days when I simply didn’t have the time, but the immediate physical, mental and emotional rewards that I reaped kept my motivation to get back out there high.
I shared these benefits with my +290 employees at JotForm, encouraging them to find the time for a daily stroll, and now I would like to share them with you.
A walk boosts creativity.
A few years ago, researchers at Stanford University found that walking stimulates the free flow of ideas and thus, creativity and innovation. They did this by asking participants to perform various thinking tests and found that after, or even during walking, the participants performed better.
Walking clearly caused an improvement in divergent thinking, which is the ability to provide multiple solutions to a single problem. In other words, creativity. Upon learning this fact a couple of years ago, JotForm, like many other startups, instituted walking meetings to maximize our creative output and problem-solving abilities.
Although I am no longer walking and talking with colleagues in person, I often get my steps in during walking meetings over the phone. I also find myself lacing up my sneakers when I’m faced with a complex work issue and sitting in front of a computer screen keeps me hyper-focused on the problem instead of searching for a solution. In such instances, I put my phone on silent and head out for a stroll around the neighborhood. No matter how long or short the walk, I always come home with new ideas, feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work.
A walk reduces anxiety while increasing positivity.
After a nice long workout session, many people, joggers especially, experience a state of complete euphoria and reduced anxiety that we have come to call a “runner’s high”. This feeling comes from the body’s release of endorphins, the feel-good hormones in your body, during a high-intensity workout. The post-workout high is accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life. Sounds good right?
For those of you like me who aren’t big fans of high-intensity workouts or running, but still want to get those feel-good endorphins, there is good news. Recent research in young adults has found that a 10-minute brisk walk is all you need to boost your mood and increase feelings of positivity.
To top that off, Dr. Michael Craig Miller at Harvard Medical School, says that the real secret to reducing anxiety and increasing positivity lies in low intensity exercise continued over time. Routine activity, like a daily walk, causes the release of proteins that stimulate nerve cell growth and new connections. This causes your brain to function better and makes you feel better.
A walk improves sleep.
There is nothing that I love more than a good night’s sleep and before I incorporated a daily walk back into my routine, my nights were usually restless. I would wake up in the morning feeling tired and in desperate need of a cup of coffee to get my day going.
Apparently, this isn’t unusual, as most middle-aged and older adults don’t sleep well. According to research, “between 50 and 70 million adults suffer from a sleep disorder, and 1 in 3 adults does not get enough sleep.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in good company.
For those seeking a natural remedy to poor sleep, doctors recommend physical activity as it works simultaneously in reducing the risk of disease while also increasing psychological well-being. Ok, but what kind of physical activity is needed to improve our quality of sleep?
In a study published in 2019, researchers studied the link between walking, sleep quality and sleep duration. The study reported that participants who took more steps during the day reported having an improved quality of sleep.
There wasn’t much of an effect on sleep duration, which researchers speculated, is much more closely tied to our personal habits and schedule. Still, those who walked more during the month-long study reported better sleep on average than those who walked less. I can personally attest that the key to a better night’s sleep is just a walk away.
A walk helps you live longer.
Legend has it that the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, in search of a secret treasure, accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. In his Spanish homeland, there were rumors of a magic fountain and a sacred, rejuvenating river somewhere in the Caribbean. This fountain, as you might have already guessed, was the mythical Fountain of Youth.
Juan Ponce de León landed in the New World and spent the rest of his life exploring in the name of the Spanish crown. Whether he was simply just exploring, or really searching for the rumored Fountain of Youth, no one knows. All we know is that there is no mention of it in his travel logs, nor did he ever find it.
With no fountain of youth as a magical cure-all, we only have biology and good luck to fall back on. Fortunately, for those who want to live better for longer, studies have found that regular exercise helps people age more slowly, live healthier, more active lives and for longer. According to a Harvard Alumni Study, “men who exercise regularly can gain about two hours of life expectancy for each hour of exercise.” Over the course of the average lifespan, that totals up to two years of extra time. And guess what? All it takes is just 30 minutes of brisk walking a day.
We all might not be as courageous as Emma Gatewood, who went on to hike the Appalachian Trail two more times. However, we can all start somewhere. Why not start with something as simple as a walk?