Walk the walk to benefit your academic research

Walking can be used to benefit academic research, help with problem-solving and promote creative thinking. Here, Anna Lois McKay explains the different ways it works

Anna Lois McKay's avatar
University of Leicester
1 Sep 2022
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Woman walking past a field of yellow flowers

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Walking means different things to different people. For academics, walking often represents the opposite of our typically interior static workplaces, whether an office, laboratory, library, or classroom. Walking is a circuit-breaker; a necessary interruption to the working day, most of which is spent rooted to the desk, staring at screens. Getting outdoors and enjoying nature can make us feel more energised and give a greater sense of autonomy and self-esteem. The physical and mental health benefits of walking are common knowledge to us, but there has been less exploration of how walking can help with problem-solving and creative thinking.  

Walking serves various functions. In its most basic form, walking is simply a means of moving from one place to the other, but it can also relieve tension and help us relax, breaking up a busy working day. For many of us, walking is automatic, and provides valuable space to mull over thoughts and clarify ideas. At different times, the walks we take can be solitary or shared, long  or short, often defined by the weather, accessibility of the route, and how much time we have to spare. While there isn’t a prescriptive way of walking, when we think about it as a tool for research, four mindsets stand out: walking alone, walking together, walking to focus, and walking to disconnect.  

Walking often represents an unconscious aspect of research practice, but recognising our individual preferences, thinking consciously about the ways we walk, and trying new ways of walking, can help stimulate the brain and fully harness the potential of walking for research.

1. Walking alone. Walking solo creates space to formulate and develop research ideas before taking them to colleagues. Carving out a fraction of time in each day for walking alone can develop a meditative process, increasing relaxation and sense of wellbeing. Walking alone in the morning might represent a time to think about research and plan the day ahead at a slower pace without a sense of urgency, whereas an evening walk can help to wind down and clear the mind.

2. Walking together. Walking with a companion – a colleague or family member – can be a helpful way of disentangling an intellectual knot and talking through a problem. Walking meetings offer new ways for academics to share ideas with colleagues in green spaces; for many, walking and talking provides stimulation removed from the formality of the meeting room or office, leading to more creative and free-flowing conversations.

3. Walking to focus. A change of scene can help us when we are stuck on an idea or working hard on a project. The obvious answer is to get up and move out of the workspace, letting the eyes and brain take in new things to clear the mind and help concentration. With busy schedules, we often neglect to dedicate time specifically to think, but setting aside some time to combine thinking with walking each day can connect the mind with the body’s internal rhythms of movement and pace, helping promote creativity and critical thought.

4. Walking to disconnect. Switching off comes in many forms; we might choose to put aside our phones or turn the volume up on music and podcasts. Getting away from everything gives crucial time to refresh the mind and find balance. Finding a walking route away from work and encountering a completely different environment that feels comfortable to you can be key to disconnecting – this might be a quiet natural space, or even a bustling high street.

It’s important that we begin to understand how exactly walking can impact our research practice and ways of thinking. Being able to pause, identify, and understand our needs can help in both the short  and long term. Feeling overwhelmed? Head out on your own and switch off. Can’t break down a problem? Grab a coffee with a colleague and talk it through outside.

We also shouldn’t underestimate the significance of walking in green and natural spaces. Whether our primary workplace is a blended setting or at home, connecting with the natural world is integral to innovation. Modifying walking routes to incorporate parks and gardens, enjoying trees, flowers and birdlife, can help enhance your mood and reduce mental fatigue.

Walking for thinking isn’t something that needs to be added to the academic to-do list. This is about taking a breath – working towards a space for creative and critical thinking. Walking is a highly individual process, but most of us are already doing it, when we walk to the office, the coffee shop or a classroom. We just need to understand how it intersects with thought and can benefit our academic research. By recognising the different roles of movement, we can harness the potential of walking as a tool to improve mind, body, and research.

This advice is based on work undertaken as part of the Interdisciplinary Walks project at the University of Leicester’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

Anna Lois McKay is research associate at the University of Leicester’s Institute for Advanced Studies.

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