Early today I was feeling very tired (thanks raccoon who visited our chickens at 1am!), a bit stressed, unsure of which of the tasks on my list were going to get accomplished, or even how to start them. I was feeling daunted and kind of defeated, before I’d even started my work day. I imagine that I am not alone, especially among those in our community dealing with school schedules filled with assignments, exam prep, finals, and a host of additional obligations.
Luckily, before I could do anything about it, I had to walk our son to the bus stop, and then walk the dog after that.
Remarkably, when I got back to the office after this walk, I was thinking clearly, I had good ideas of how to best accomplish the tasks in front of me, and was able to maintain focus on the priorities I laid out. I found this remarkable because I was explicitly not thinking of the tasks ahead while walking to the bus, picking up after Penny (the dog, that is), or strolling along on a cold, bright, early Spring Maine morning. What happened then, to allow this mental 180? How did not applying effort to my work, make the work easier? More importantly, was this just random, or is there more going on, and something that might be a tool in our mental toolbox for dealing with stress, deadlines, and mental blocks?
Luckily, much smarter people than I have investigated the mind-body connection, and the effects that walking and the outdoors can have on our mental capabilities.
Starting with simply walking, a pair of Stanford University researchers, Marily Oppezzo & Daniel Schwartz (Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014) devised a clever series of experiments that tested participants ability to form high quality, creative ideas after a period of sitting, or walking. What they found probably isn’t shocking, that participants who had walked performed better on these tests. And not just a bit better, walkers were at least twice as productive as sitters in coming up with quality, creative ideas. This held true for walking on a treadmill, or for those who don’t want to use a walking desk (everyone puts their hands up), walking outdoors. In fact, walking outdoors proved to enhance productivity even further.
While the benefits of walking, indoors and outdoors, were clearly positive and significant regardless of setting, walking outdoors also correlated with improvements on non creative mental tasks – concentration and production. This makes sense when viewed through another well researched theory about the mental impacts of time spent outdoors – Attention Restoration Theory (ART). In her excellent book “The Nature Fix”, Florence Williams outlines the 2+ decades of research into ART, and the findings that time spent in natural settings restores, and increases, our brains abilities to attend to mental tasks (Williams, 2017). Put plainly, spending time outdoors helps us concentrate, and a brain that is having trouble maintaining focus might be a brain that needs to be taken out for a bit of fresh air, some trees, or some cloud watching. And there is a dosage effect – even as little as 5 minutes of time spent walking or even sitting and watching natural settings will help restore attentional resources, but the longer you can spend, the better. (If you are interested in ART, I thoroughly recommend reading Williams. The literature around ART is widespread, and somewhat confusing, and Williams does a great job weaving the common threads together).
So for all of our camp family – be they campers or staff who are facing academic deadlines and exam prep, staff and parents facing work demands and family pressures, and for all of us facing any of the endlessly demanding tasks, take Penny’s advice. Go for a walk.
Oppezzo, M., & Schwartz, D. L. (2014). Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory & Cognition, 40(4), 1142–1152. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0036577
Williams, F. (2017). The nature fix: why nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative (First edition). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Independent Publishers Since 1923.