Although I don’t necessarily consider walking—at least not normal pace walking—to be exercise per se, there are still several reasons you should incorporate a daily walk into your routine. Regular walks improve your cardiovascular health, improve your sleep, brighten your mood, and increase your longevity, among others. Equally important are the creative benefits, too: a 2014 Stanford study confirmed that walking does boost creativity and productivity.
I can attest to this. On my daily walks I often find inspiration for new article ideas as well as developments on previous ideas. When this inspiration strikes, I just type it into my phone’s Evernote app. I even write parts of articles on my walks oftentimes (including parts of this article!).
So it’s been clearly substantiated that walking, thinking, and creativity go hand-in-hand. But great thinkers and writers have known this for hundreds of years; they didn’t need a scientific study to confirm it. These five remarkable minds in particular viewed walking not as exercise, but as a crucial aspect of their intellectual and creative life:
1. Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was a politician, Founding Father, third president of the United States, farmer, architect, inventor, writer, philosopher, scientist, and linguist (I’m probably forgetting a couple more!). He touted both the physical and mental benefits of walking in a 1785 letter to his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph Jr.:
Of all exercises walking is the best. … No one knows, till he tries, how easily a habit of walking is acquired. A person who never walked three miles will in the course of a month become able to walk fifteen or twenty without fatigue. I have known some great walkers, and had particular accounts of many more; and I never knew or heard of one who was not healthy and long lived.
Jefferson had a lifelong penchant for recording and collecting data, and he even closely measured his walking, as evidenced by this undated memoranda from the 1780s:
I step a French mile of 1000 toises = 6408 Eng.f. in 1053 double steps. This yields 3f. & 1/2I. English to the step and 1735 steps to the mile. I walk a French mile in 17 1/2 minutes. A French mile is = 1.21 or 1 1/4 Eng. miles. I walk then at a rate of 4 3/20 miles or 4.mi.264 yards an hour.
Walking moderately in the summer I walked a Fr. mile of 1000 T = 6408 f. in 1254. steps and in 26′. That gives 2.55 f. to the step and
2066 1/2 steps to the Eng. mile
1735 the brisk walk of winter
Although Jefferson gradually quit walking and turned to horseback riding due to old age, all the steps he accumulated undoubtedly contributed to his long, creative, and productive life.
2. Henry David Thoreau
That Stanford study also discovered that the act of walking itself is what counts, not the environment in which its done. Thoreau would’ve taken issue with this. His Transcendentalism—a philosophy of life associated with minimalism, self-reliance, and naturalism—compelled him to live among, and therefore walk through, untamed nature. But whatever your preference, you can still appreciate Thoreau’s lecture on walking, which he titled, well, “On Walking.” Excerpt:
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la SainteTerre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. … He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. … [E]very walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.
The idea of walking without a destination in mind is certainly an important one. On my walks, I’m not seeking to go anywhere specific, nor to walk for a specific amount of time. I just walk, stimulate the right side of my brain, turn around at some arbitrary point, continue to let the inspiration flow, and arrive home. It may take a half-hour, forty five minutes, or even an hour or more. No me importa.
3. Soren Kierkegaard
Kierkegaard was an odd duck. But so are most geniuses, after all. In between his morning and his evening/late night writing sessions, Kierkegaard would spend much of his afternoon walking the streets of Copenhagen, frequently stopping to converse with strangers. No doubt this fueled his brain and his creative output: the Danish philosopher composed dozens of works and left behind several volumes worth of journals and manuscripts.
In an 1847 letter to his niece, Kierkegaard wrote the following about walking. I couldn’t have put it better myself:
Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Everyday, I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But by sitting still, and the more one sits still, the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.
4. Friedrich Nietzsche
One of the 19th century’s most important—and most idiosyncratic—philosophers was Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote numerous quotable aphorisms and thoughts, at least one of which was related to walking: “Only thoughts that are reached by walking have value.”
In his biography of Nietzsche, Curtis Cate spelled out the philosopher’s typical morning and early afternoon, which included a great deal of walking:
With a Spartan rigour which never ceased to amaze his landlord-grocer, Nietzsche would get up every morning when the faintly dawning sky was still grey, and, after washing himself with cold water from the pitcher and china basin in his bedroom and drinking some warm milk, he would, when not felled by headaches and vomiting, work uninterruptedly until eleven in the morning. He then went for a brisk, two-hour walk through the nearby forest or along the edge of Lake Silvaplana (to the north-east) or of Lake Sils (to the south-west), stopping every now and then to jot down his latest thoughts in the notebook he always carried with him.
Two hours isn’t bad! I’m sure not all of us have the time to spend two hours a day walking, but as I mentioned above, the duration matters not.
5. Charles Darwin
Darwin is of course best known for his “On the Origins of Species” and numerous contributions to evolutionary science. He would take two walks per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. For Darwin, walking was “an exercise in reflection — a kind of moving meditation.” And like every other thinker on the list, it was an integral part of his intellectual life, not solely his health and fitness life.
Even if you aren’t a writer, blogger, or thinker, that doesn’t mean you can’t reap the creative benefits of walking. Daily walks will increase your long-term productivity, help you wrestle with big ideas, solve problems, and get your creative juices flowing. Add those to the scores of physical and emotional benefits, and it’s evident that regular long walks can make you a better human being overall.